Q-Tip – ‘The Renaissance’
December 2, 2008 § Leave a comment
Published: The Vine, December 2, 2008.
Comeback albums by past greats can be tenuous propositions at the best of times. The line between and revivalism and revision is faint, but crucial.
On this tip, Portishead have already given us plenty to think about this year. The fact that they managed to break their decade-long hiatus with a masterpiece like Third triggered a collective sigh of relief. It was urgent, intense and abrasive; it was a challenging and progressive rethinking of their sound. But it was an exception to an all-too familiar rule. If an artist or group hasn’t been releasing music for an extended period of time, there’s usually a good reason for it. Cue the unfulfilled promise of Wu-Tang’s 8 Diagrams.
Q-Tip’s The Renaissance has been a much less hyped but nonetheless significant return to the fold. A decade since A Tribe Called Quest’s disbandment and nine years since his neo-soul-soaked solo debut Amplified, arguably the finest MC/producer of the golden era has spent the majority of the 00s in the midst of fruitless label negotiations and stalled release schedules – his 2002 opus Kamaal the Abstract is still yet to be released.
But luckily for all, The Renaissance uses its baggage to its advantage. This isn’t just a celebration of Q-Tip’s lineage as a rapper and beat-smith, but a brilliant example of fine-tuning and forward thinking. From the electric soul-scorched groove of ‘Won’t Trade’ to the disco-chewed politico-funk of second single ‘Move’, it proves just about the best hip-hop record you’ll hear this year.
The set finds its strength in its fluidity. Q-Tip is more elastic than ever here – both on the mic and MPC – but it’s his signature understatement that still sets the parameters. The minimal live funk, glimmering chorus hook and romantic thematics of lead single ‘Getting’ Up’ find perfect sync with the classic Tribe jazz-hip-hop pulse of ‘Official’ and ‘We Fight/We Love’, while the pared back, heartbroken introspections of ‘You’ bounce off the late 70s boom-bap and socio-cultural philosophising of ‘ManWomanBoogie’.
Even the record’s one high-profile vocal collaboration – ‘Life is Better’ with Norah Jones – doesn’t lose its orientation. It’s all about the song rather than the big-name singer. Jones’ placid lilt melts over a snaking neo-soul bass line, keys and a popping downbeat, and it’s downright stunning. In fact, The Renaissance is flush with highlights and even in the more serious passages Q-Tip’s enthusiasm never wavers. His trademark flow shines with the same laidback vocal and highly conscious and lyrical verve that made Tribe sets like Low End Theory so iconic.
This is a man who is still wildly in love with what he does. Nine years of frustrations and label sidestepping hasn’t made him bitter – it has him better. While Q-Tip’s sound will always invoke a kind of dreamy, NYC golden era cadence, The Renaissance is far from just a throwback. Kinetic and mature, this intoxicating oeuvre is a huge step forward.