I can’t believe it took Q-Tip almost two decades to think of the line, “What good is an ear if a Q-Tip isn’t in it?”
Anyway, first thing you should know is that the album title is a lie: this isn’t a rebirth of anything at all. Not for hip-hop, even though Q-Tip makes a huzzah about how “this record feels like we’re moving in a new direction … something hip-hop should do” because of “real drums, real emotions and people taking solos” because that’s not a new concept in the genre, least of all in 2008, Not to mention the fact that the drums never impress for being live. And certainly not politically: for an album that was released the same date as when the first black president was elected in America, it barely constitutes as political rap (other than touching on the war overseas on “We Fight / We Love” and Q-Tip briefly shouting “Let’s move this government!” on “Move”).
As far as I can tell, this album was a disappointment to the general public who had their pulse on hip-hop back in 2008. There’s too much singing, so the hip-hop heads say (Q-Tip definitely takes his time with respect to a lot of these choruses, and they’re definitely right about “Life is Better,” which feels like a Norah Jones track featuring Q-Tip instead of the other way around; she occupies 75% of the fucking song); it’s not jazzy enough, so the A Tribe Called Quest fans who keep living in the past say; it doesn’t bang enough, so the kids who don’t care about the past say. He tried to please everyone and ended up not pleasing anyone at all. And let’s get real here: unless an album gets rave reviews from publications, no one’s going to give a shit about it (lukewarm isn’t hot enough, apparently; 8.4 not best new music is a slap).
But I ended up pleased. Q-Tip being Q-Tip, you get solid basslines throughout, see specifically: “We Fight / We Love” and the Can-sampling “Manwomanboogie.” Meanwhile, Q-Tip being Q-Tip, you get solid rapping too, see specifically: “We Fight / We Love,” “You” (beautiful piano loop to go with the heartbreaking lyrics) and J Dilla-produced, bipartite “Move.” And though I’m not a big fan of “Dance On Glass”– bad idea starting it a capella – “Corny rap style niggas, they lack the pedigree / Deep waters they be in when they are just the manatee” might be the best couplet on the album. And I’m even more surprised by the production details, like how this beautiful piano line comes in halfway through each verse on “Johnny is Dead,” successfully filling up the empty space from the half-assed rhythm that drives the track (first instance is at the 0:40 mark) or a synth bubbles partway in “Getting’ Up” (at the 1:24 mark), and I’m guessing this is Q-Tip’s own detail since he’s credited with co-producing the track.
But my favorite track is easily “Won’t Trade,” produced by Mark Ronson. Sure, Q-Tip bites a little more than he can chew when he tries to employ a sports metaphor for a relationship because the words fall apart (“I need to hear it every day, they cheer for me, say, “Ole” / Wait a minute, “Andele”? / I dunno, well, anyway”) but I’m not too sussed: the whole song comes off as an excuse for Q-Tip to shoot off an many internal rhymes as he can in the shortest amount of time in what’s probably the man’s most melodic flow, bouncin’ and boppin’ along to the bassline, followed along by the album’s most indelible sample as the album’s best hook.
One of the best hip-hop albums of 2008 (though that says more about the sorry state of
hip-hop music in 2008 than it does The Renaissance).