Which would have seemed less likely back in 1999? That we would have a black president in 2008 or that it would be nine years before Q-Tip released his second solo album? Neither seemed remotely probable, and yet here we are, with Q-Tip releasing his sophomore effort on the same day that Americans handed Barack Obama the worst job in the country. The Renaissance is the first Q-Tip album to see official release since 1999’s misguided pop mission Amplified, and the near decade of label frustrations, thwarted projects, sporadic guest-verses and acting gigs has delivered a rapper neither begrudging nor resentful. Where Q-Tip’s peers in their late 30s court relevance by way of transparently outlandish flights of absurdity (Ghostface) or portly auto-hagiography (Jay-Z), on The Renaissance Q-Tip reaffirms his stature as one of the hip-hop greats by waxing unassuming, cool-headed and wise.
The former Tribesman may not wow you with thesaurus-thumping wordplay or beat-demolishing flow, but his nasally, mellifluous vocals have a kind of archetypal appeal, as if he were the paragon of emceeing, one whom every new rapper must imitate before discovering his own style. Q-Tip himself offers an explanation on “Official,” deducing the synergy between production and lyrics and coming close to proving music critics redundant: “People fuck with me ‘cause/When the song ends I become what the beat was” is as good a description of Q-Tip’s affect as has been written. Each song on The Renaissance is well structured and executed with professional precision. “Wont Trade” riffs on sports drama, “You” zeroes in on relationship back-and-forth, “Manwomanboogie” spits sensei-worthy koans on meaning, music and existence. Q-Tip is at times too measured, too clinically distant from his subjects; kind of like the president-elect, who during the campaign never fully shook the charge that he was excessively “professorial,” one wishes Q-Tip would loosen up a little and feel our pain.
It is easy to forget that Q-Tip was one of the most varied and respected producers of the 1990s, partly responsible both for Mariah Carey’s “Honey” and Nas’s “One Love.” Here his beats glimmer with a sort of Foreign Exchange by way of Large Professor brightness: both vintage-soul samples and iridescent keyboard lines have big roles. Fortunately, the singing Q-Tip explored on 2002’s Kamaal the Abstract (an album that was sent to the press and made the rounds on the web but never hit the racks) is kept to a minimum. The Renaissance‘s indisputable centerpiece, though, the track that simultaneously celebrates Tribe’s legacy while making Q-Tip appear fresher than ever, is “Move,” the only song here not produced by the rapper. “Move” is another J-Dilla treasure that has been discovered since the producer died in 2006, a scorching epic of blistering horns and loopy vocal samples that brings Q-Tip out from behind his podium to tear it up like a teenaged street preacher.
If it is indeed 2017 before we see a follow up to The Renaissance, so be it. The blockheaded machinations of the Palin administration will leave us grasping for the kind of admirably zen hip-hop only Q-Tip can provide and which will keep us sane. For now we enjoy a beautiful rebirth, and only pray that it isn’t short-lived.