Q-Tip is back with his first solo release of the decade, and “The Renaissance” is aptly named. “Johnny is Dead” establishes its ingenuity and fresh feel, “Johnny” being a reference to Q’s birth name, replaced during his mid-1990s conversion to Islam. Lines like, “what good is an ear if a q-tip isn’t in it?” assure you the clever lyricist has not lost much through the years. As comfortable as ever spitting over jazz-flavored beats produced largely by himself, Q-Tip mixes dance grooves with more laid-back material.
His production effort is of a higher quality than most hip-hop “artists” who devote their whole careers to producing. The first half of the album is structured so finely that the transitions between songs are hardly noticeable. The second half becomes more inconsistent. Though every one of the twelve tracks makes for an enjoyable listen, not all of those tracks are memorable. Only “Johnny is Dead,” “Won’t Trade,” “Gettin’ Up” and “Dancing On Glass” really stand out.
Like “Amplified” (1999), Q’s first solo album, “The Renaissance” suffers from its lack of A Tribe Called Quest’s most important dynamic. Phife Dawg isn’t present to kick smooth rhymes back and forth with Q-Tip. The guest spots, in fact, feature R&B and jazz singers like D’Angelo and Norah Jones. The only especially creative vocal trade-off is the exchange between Q-Tip and a sample of Ruby Andrews’s “You Made a Believer Out of Me.” Using that late-60s Chicago soul as the sonic backdrop, Q transforms Andrews’s Motown-inflected love song into something a bit odd and hard to wrap your thoughts around. On “Won’t Trade,” Q-Tip raps from the perspective of a star athlete amid trade rumors, proclaiming loyalty to his team and fan base. Is he boasting his sexual prowess as several scattered innuendos might suggest? Is he announcing he has no intention of selling out? Or is it a mix of both?
Q-Tip presents a fantastic piece of pop music and avoids the stain of commercial hip-hop. The album is thankfully at least commercial enough for Universal Motown to release it, unlike “Kamaal the Abstract” (2002), which no record label thought fit to publish. Continuing in the vain of A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip demonstrates a solid command of catchy compositions.
“Gettin’ Up,” the first single from “The Renaissance,” takes the soulful piano riff from Black Ivory’s “You and I” and speeds it up to make it more playful and conducive to Q-Tip’s style. The single creates an uplifted and feel-good mood, appropriate to the title as well as the rest of the album.
“Dance On Glass” is the most impressive track. After a brief lead-in, Q raps a straight 40-second verse with no beat. He builds energy with witty punch lines entwined in a flow reminiscent of old school delivery, lines like “Corny rap style niggas, they lack the pedigree. Deep waters they be in when they just a manatee.” The tension finally releases as the beat hits, but Q doesn’t let up and keeps hammering his lyrical cotton swabs deeper into your ears.
“The Renaissance” reminds the hip-hop world why no mention of the legends should leave out the name Q-Tip. Still, its inconsistency keeps it from being a great album. While some songs shine with innovation, others feel dull after a couple listens. But any ATCQ fans missing that signature high-pitched, throaty delivery, or anyone looking for alternatives to the synth-driven radio hip-hop, should check out Q-Tip’s newest release.