Q-Tip: Road to the Renaissance

Q-Tip: Road to the Renaissance

In the age of the leak, it is time to lay the “lost” album to rest. The idea of music disappearing amid artist-industry conflicts seems increasingly unlikely, especially since leaks are increasingly embraced by the industry. As long as there is a person with access to recorded material and a contemporary view of proprietary rights, any music can be made available online.

Q-Tip’s two unreleased albums are remarkable examples of this point. His 2002 effort, Kamaal the Abstract, and attempted follow-up, Open, in 2004 were well-publicized industry snafus wherein two separate companies shelved each album in the eleventh hour. But because a considerable amount of Q-Tip’s “unreleased” solo material is readily available online, savvy consumers can still obtain both albums. 

As a result, Q-Tip, like so many other artists with “lost” albums (the coming weeks, we’ll discuss two other artists in this camp), now has a de facto online journal of his music. And as the emcee prepares for a third time to release his “sophomore” album, The Renaissance, a look back at a select sampling of tracks offers insight into where he has been and where he is likely headed.

01. Q-Tip: “Abstractionisms” (feat. Kenny Garrett)

 The first step in Q-Tip’s journey appeared large when contrasting 1991’s “Verses from the Abstract” — A Tribe Called Quest’s heralded collabo with bassist Ron Carter (and frequently referenced example when writers play up the group’s “jazz rap” angle) — and Kamaal the Abstract‘s “Abstractionisms,” which featured saxophonist Kenny Garrett. There were plenty of modifiers to explain the vast differences between the two (“blues” versus “post bop”) songs, not to mention the sheer decade that separated them.

However, all of this can be summarized as such: A decade ago, Tip rhymed with a guy who put the funk in his blues solo; a decade later, Tip rhymed with a guy who made a funk solo sound blue, orange, purple, and all the pretty colors of the rainbow. So, though Tip now rhymed about “steer[-ing] clear of pretension,” a point that actually sounded sincere, he also outlined an entire artist’s statement that found “falling prey to categories” “black and abysmal.” Q-Tip’s transgression was not that he did something revolutionary or ahead of its time. Rather, he tried to create something that broke from structure within a system that required structure.

02. Q-Tip: “Feelin’ ”

One verse over guitar, bass and drums. An organ solo for twice as long. And then riding out on a vamp. Fans of pre-Riot Sly, early Santana and Zeppelin recognize this winning formula. So, writing off “Feelin’ ” and the entire Kamaal album as too experimental seems insufficient.

The truth is Q-Tip merely took a logical leap on “Feelin’ ” and much of the Kamaal album. Instead of sampling sounds, he channeled the aesthetics of each sample in his music and tried to create new connections. In this sense, “Feelin’ ” was a throwback to A Tribe Called Quest’s Beats, Rhymes & Life (especially with his “Jam” reminiscent verse here) and that album’s nods to the ’70s black-fusion ideals of Black Jazz Records (bassist Henry Franklin, who was sampled on “The Hop,” was an artist on this label)l. That label attempted to bridge the widening race and economic gaps between music genres, particularly R&B, jazz, blues, and various West African music.

Sounds heady on paper, but Q-Tip’s attempt here was a comparative breeze. Strutting along to his band, Q-Tip was more interested in toying with musical ideas than unearthing their deep meanings. After all, his response to a “profilin’ cop” was more “Let it be” than “Fuck the police.” But which is the sentiment more associated with hip-hop?

03. Q-Tip: “Barely in Love”

As such, Kamaal the Abstract was filled with collateral damage — notably “Barely in Love,” Tip’s deepest excursion into rock. The strutting clip-clop beat overwhelms Tip’s post-adolescent tale of lust gone wrong, but it at least gives the MC a chance to explore Black Rock Coalition territory. The result resembles a Lenny Kravitz demo but is full of unhinged curiosity and fun-seeking seldom allowed in “professional” music. Indeed, raw feelings and love clearly became Q-Tip’s topic of choice — hardly an unfamiliar one, as far as pop-music subject matter goes. But with so few overtly winning qualities on the album “Barely in Love” was likely viewed as just another strike.

04. Q-Tip: “Caring”

This song poem is the largest musical stretch from Q-Tip’s traditionally recognized oeuvre. Featuring only piano and voice (mostly another singer’s) and devoid of any boom bap, I believe this falls in most listeners’ “most un-hip-hop thing for a hip-hop artist to do” list.

And it’s called “Caring.”

But consider the song once more. Listen to how Tip provides the subtle low-end harmony. His careful attention to the ending. And his unwillingness to take anything too seriously (he’s saying his thanks before the song is over).

Maybe then you can hear why he has convinced himself that he has “steered clear of the pretension” and is just trying a new bag.

05. Q-Tip: “Lisa”

Considering the Kamaal fall-out, one would reasonably expect another about-face. However, “Lisa” was a clear sign that the debacle didn’t deter Q-Tip from continuing his musical explorations. He still tackles matters of the heart — call “Lisa” the epilogue to “Bonita Applebum” — but shapes the song with sound more than structure. Tip’s second band skewed younger and their studio savvy reflected in the careful attention to the shape and tone of each note or phrase. The detail and care suited the delicate subject matter and began to transform Tip’s image into a Wanderlust Poet.

06. Q-Tip: “Black Boy”

Not to say he ever lost touch with his first gift: lyrics to go. “Black Boy” updated “Sucka Nigga” by speaking more to ironies in the Abstract’s life than misdeeds performed on his race. “Keep the fiends comin’/ lasso and rope,” he says about pop music’s goal, “That goes around your neck piece/ Like a dog leash.” Without supporting or condoning, he turns past frustration on its head while riding an upside down beat in 3/8 time — indeed he was “ringing in key and harmonically relevant.” Though Tip warned “Be careful about the things you say” and “How you grow” in the chorus, he mostly spoke in tongues to dodge the inevitable finger-pointing. It was almost as if he had learned a few tricks…

07. Q-Tip: “Move”

Such growing comfort and stability perhaps explains why this single was released in 2004. The first false start single to his Kamaal the Abstract follow-up, “Move” was a logical choice because of its return to familiar “Vivrant Thing” territory: the breaker-friendly tempo, the heroic horns practically throwing panties at the star of the show, and Tip in rare polysyllabic form. Though J Dilla’s production made the song virtual kin to Amplified, “Move” subtly updated that album’s jiggy reputation. Here, Q-Tip moved away from his failed TRL idol image and toward a VH1 sex symbol — subtle, I know. He still made a vie for stardom, except it was more of the grown’n sexy variety than the wild’n out-of-control sort: “I’m just a brother man descended from the motherland/ I fuck with Blackberries and dimes and butter tans.”

However, lines like, “Life is a tight rope/ I’m trying to balance it” were a clear indication that he was still trying to manage others’ expectations and his interests. Considering confidence reigns supreme in hip-hop, the song likely never had a chance at hitting. Trying to bang out on a platform of uncertainty, especially while devoid of context, only made the song sound half-hearted.

08. Busta Rhymes: “Get You Some” (feat. Q-Tip and Marsha Ambrosius)

Of all Q-Tip’s contributions to others’ records, this “collabo” (if it could be considered such) neatly summarized how low his stock had fallen in the mainstream. Q-Tip was relegated to half of a chorus on Busta Rhymes’ “Get You Some,” a semi-forgotten nugget on Busta’s 2006 album, The Big Bang. The two Native Tongue compatriots had an opportunity to spazz-out over a flailing Dre beat. Instead, the Abstract was buried deep in the mix aside an on-the-rise singer. Even by the standards of his previously, suspiciously meager guest appearances on other artists’ hooks — he lent his “Sucka Nigga” slur to Mos Def’s “Mr. Nigga” and he joined an illustrious old school cast (Biz Markie and Slick Rick) on Jay-Z’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” — this was the most ignominous appearance. But perhaps bottoming out was a blessing in disguise.

09. Q-Tip: “That’s Sexy” (feat. Andre 3000)

Q-Tip and Andre 3000 made love not war over the snappy arrangement on Tip’s second false-start single. The chunky guitar, spare bass and crisp drums were aurally alike to the Kamaal sessions — another affirming confirmation that Tip’s music interests remained undeterred. And 3K’s assist on the chorus gave the track a needed contemporary feel and an attractive celebrity co-sign.

But what truly set the song apart was Tip’s re-draft of the Ladies-Love-Kamaal persona again. By now, it was clear he had left the muscle shirts and lip-licking for LL and instead embraced a boho Lothario pose. However, he traded in the mechanical beats for an acoustic warmth that better suited the sexy-folk-hero ideal. Anyone worldly enough to criticize the war, yet man enough to “go to sleep, wake up and do it again” surely needed a live band, not a machine at his side.

10. Q-Tip: “Gettin’ Up”

Which finally brings us to what will hopefully be Tip’s actual first single off the pending The Renaissance. East Village Radio soulmate and producer-of-the-moment Mark Ronson brings the artist back to familiar soul-sampling territory by re-hashing a well-worn Black Ivory loop and providing a suitably romantic lodging for Tip’s get-up-stand-up-in-the-name-of-love headspace.

For all the talk of the Abstract Poetics’s detours, this excursion finds him grounded in a pursuit for familiar (yet hardly simpler) things: feelings. “Like Ruby Dee and Ossie/ Martin and Coretta,” Tip finally sounds comfortable aspiring toward both substantive politics and Hollywood ideals. And with multiple geek communities congregating online, Tip may finally be able to deliver his message to his people.

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Dan plays music, listens to music, teaches music, reads and yarns aboutmusic ... and advocates phonetic pronunciation. His writing includes athesis on the popularization of hip-hop; liner notes for funk andrhythm & blues artists such as Andre Williams and Black Merda; andfeatures for <i></i><a href="http://www.waxpoetic.net/"><i>Wax Poetics</i></a> and <a href="http://www.popmatters.com/">Popmatters.com</a>. For more information, swing by <b><a href="http://sintalentos.blogspot.com/">sintalentos</a></b>.