There is a certain subset of the rap community that spends all too much time pining for hip hop’s Golden Age. This group of artists and fans is constantly accusing today’s rappers of somehow being untrue to the great ideals of hip hop.
To an extent these guys are right to criticize the current climate of mainstream rap. A good heap of today’s most popular artists offer little more than a misogynistic catchphrase over a bass-heavy beat. But the mainstream is also home to Lil Wayne’s linguistic acrobatics, T.I.s internal moral struggles, and, well, Kanye freakin’ West. These are probably the three most dominant names on the national stage and all three of them are displaying far greater artistic vision than, let’s say, Little Brother. And yet these and other worthy artists are continuously disrespected by a group of purists who would rather everybody still sound like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. It is within this scene that Quest’s Q-Tip reemerges as a Messianic figure, charged with the task of setting everything right with the world.
Part of what makes Q-Tip’s third solo album, The Renaissance, so enjoyable is that he spends less time whining that nobody on the radio sounds like Q-Tip and more time actually BEING Q-Tip. I was sort of making a little joke right there (albeit not a very funny one) but the point is that while a lot of underground rappers are criticizing the mainstream for not saying anything of substance, they really aren’t saying much of substance either. It doesn’t take a whole lot of creativity to holler dopey lines about booties into a mic for 72 minutes, but it takes even less to spend 72 minutes talking ABOUT somebody who hollers dopey lines about booties into a mic. Q-Tip wisely shies away from that here.
Like his many fans, Q-Tip certainly believes there is a void in the hip hop world for what he has to say, but from the outset he makes it clear that he respects many of today’s biggest artists. Within the album’s first few lines he claims, “And it’s up to me to bring back the hope / Or feeling in the music that you can quote / Not sayin’ I hate it, cause yeah, I kinda dig it / But what good is an ear if a Q-Tip isn’t in it.” Besides being an early demonstration that Tip’s long layoff has done little to dull his wit, this line shows that the rapper has a much clearer, and far less hoity-toity, picture of the current scene than most of his followers. He recognizes that for all its flaws, rap has continued to evolve and there is still a whole lot worth listening to. Later, on “Life is Better”, Q-Tip’s tribute track to some of his favorite artists, he doesn’t hesitate to include names like Ludacris and Lil Wayne right alongside all the legends you come to expect from a track like this.
By not wasting his time whining about the things that are lacking from the current scene, Q-Tip has more time to actually fill the void. There aren’t many lyricists like Tip at the top of the game right now and on The Renaissance he demonstrates that he hasn’t missed a step. “Dance on Glass” begins with a full minute of mind-blowing a capella before the beat hits. Elsewhere, he is personal on love songs such as “You” and socially aware on “We Fight / We Love”.
Even better is Q-Tip’s ability to craft an album as a cohesive unit. Thanks to the Internet, rap has become a genre dependent on singles, with most mainstream rap albums consisting of a handful of well-known tracks and a handful of filler to round out the 70+ minutes. The Renaissance is short and sweet, flowing effortlessly between tracks that work well together. “I’m gonna do it for me, then I’ll do it for you,” Q-Tip claims on “Official”, before breaking directly into the next song, “You”. For all the strengths of today’s artists, I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more that are able to craft an album the way Tip does.
The Renaissance, which is almost entirely self-produced by Q-Tip, pushes the genre forward musically. The beats are extremely laid-back and jazzy. It is not a hook-heavy record. This is hip hop that needs to be digested (maybe one of the reasons it took me over a week to sit down and write this review.) This is another reason The Renaissance stands out in the current hip hop landscape. Rap is a genre that thrives on immediacy. Most of the best albums of this year are the ones that just jump off the shelves at listeners. But once in a while it is nice to hear somebody like Q-Tip deliver a subtle work of art that takes a little more time to grow on you.
The only point where Q-Tip relinquishes production duties is on the two-part “Move”, posthumously credited to J Dilla. The first half of the song is built around a sample of The Jackson 5’s “Dancing Machine”. But it’s the second half that breaks down into one of the more memorable beats of the album as Tip offers a touching autobiographical verse, claiming Tribe’s place in the history books: “Don’t you ever forget who put that pep in your step / We made it cool to wear medallions and say Hotep.”
It’s not really a complaint, but Q-Tip probably could have benefited from an occasional guest MC, somebody to break up his subtlety with a little fire from time to time. But this is definitely a grown-up rap album. The only guest spots belong to grown-up singers like Raphael Saadiq, Norah Jones, and D’Angelo. All of them show fairly well, including Jones, whose voice actually sounds made for rap choruses.
The Renaissance closes with “Shaka”, a tribute to lost loved ones that celebrates life more than it mourns death. “Dilla having you in my past has been a blast / You’ve inspired so many and forever will you last / And to my father your spirit is drapin’ me / Never escapin’ me / I’m happy that I have you in my past.” Q-Tip is giving a nod to the past, but he is not wallowing in misery. We should all be grateful for the people and the times we have loved in the past, but now we must live in the present.