Q-Tip's 'Renaissance' Worth The Wait

Q-Tip's latest album is The Renaissance.

hide captionQ-Tip's latest album is The Renaissance.

Courtesy of the artist

As leader of the 1990s hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip rose to fame on the strength of their jazz-influenced production and his smooth, unruffled rapping. When he went solo with 1999's Amplified, he seemed poised for pop stardom with his unique blend of bohemian charm and fashion-friendly sex appeal. But problems plagued his 2002 follow-up, and the rapper once nicknamed "Mr. Incognito" disappeared from the music scene. He has now resurfaced with an entirely new CD, The Renaissance. The wait has been worth it.

Throughout his 20-year career, Q-Tip has never been the most ferocious or gritty MC. But what he and A Tribe Called Quest excelled in — unerringly — was a song craft imbued with the emotional sophistication of a be-bop ballad even when blasting out of car trunks.

The better moments on Q-Tip's new album, The Renaissance, recall that particular magic — a unity of soul-soothing music and Q-Tip's distinctive presence as the everyman poet with a touch of street swagger.

The Renaissance is a compelling, though sometimes uneven, pastiche of several styles drawn from Q-Tip's years in exile. That includes echoes from his unreleased but leaked 2002 album, Kamaal the Abstract. It was a challenging, ambitious effort that his label deemed commercially impractical. The Renaissance sustains some of that experimental spirit, with less conventional songs featuring eclectic musical textures and Q-Tip singing instead of rapping.

Elsewhere, it's reassuring to hear that, unlike many of his peers, age has actually sharpened Q-Tip's agility as a rapper. He especially favors terse couplets and a staccato delivery. His signature, pinched voice artfully plays with and against the peaks and pockets of the album's rhythms.

From a rapper coming off a long hiatus, The Renaissance has to compete against both the contemporary pop landscape as well as fans' nostalgia for the halcyon days of A Tribe Called Quest. However, at their best, Q-Tip's songs can elicit an emotional response that transcends the boundaries of time eras or genre categories. It may have taken him nearly 10 years to remind us of that, but even when Q-Tip's not on schedule, he still manages to sound on time.

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