Classic Albums: 'The Renaissance' by Q-Tip

Classic Albums: 'The Renaissance' by Q-Tip

Published Thu, July 14, 2022 at 1:00 PM EDT

"I’m just finally excited about putting out some music," Q-Tip told the Village Voice in 2007. "It’s been an eternity."

The Hip-Hop landscape had shifted tremendously since 1999, when the former frontman of A Tribe Called Quest dropped Amplified, his solo debut. Mainstream rap music was still heavily awash in shiny suit-ism, and hits like "Vivrant Thing" and "Breathe & Stop" were criticized by some of the Tribe faithful for their flossy aesthetics. Nonetheless, the album's success had proven that the Queens rapper/producer was more than capable of forging ahead as a solo act.

But a funny thing happened on the way to superstardom. In the early 2000s, Q-Tip pushed himself creatively and musically; studying music theory at Juilliard and working on a project that was more free-form jazz-driven than anything he'd done on Amplified. The subsequent album, Kamaal The Abstract, would be severely delayed from its anticipated 2001 release date, and Q-Tip asked to be let go from the label.

After parting ways with Arista, Q-Tip had bounced around to no less than three major labels in the years between his first and second album. And he was frustrated following his stint at Arista under L.A. Reid, in particular. But he'd tried to stay put with the label, on the word of industry heavyweight Lyor Cohen.

"So me listening to some stuff that I thought was sage advice, I did that, stuck with LA," Tip shared. "I did an album, Kamaal the Abstract, and he dug it. It went out to press. People were really liking it. It was, at the time, some other shit, and I guess he just got cold feet. And I just got impatient. I asked for a release, I got it, and then I went to Dreamworks, recorded another album there. And then Dreamworks folded and was absorbed by Interscope. And then Interscope dollied me to, I guess, Geffen. So where we at now? Started at Arista, then went to Dreamworks; that’s two. And then we went to Geffen; that’s three [labels]. Can we say that’s three?"

He would land at Universal Motown with Sylvia Rhone, and by the time he finally got to work on his third album (...The Abstract wouldn't see official release until 2009), rap's mainstream had been recalibrated by the success of artists like Kanye West and Pharrell Williams, superstars who were clear musical descendants of Q-Tip's particular brand of artistry. His musical kinship with the late J. Dilla had helped shape an entire generation of producers' collective approach; and Dilla's 2006 death still loomed heavily over his former collaborator and friend.

Q-Tip's new album would reaffirm his reputation as a craftsman while also showcasing his maturing sound.

"I did a whole heap of the production," he told the Voice. "I got a joint on there with my boy Dilla. And I have another single coming and a couple of videos, and I’m about to hit the road with Common. So I feel like it’s me starting all over, which is great. I love it. I like to be in a position where sometimes the onus doesn’t fall on me. It enables me to sit and watch and be free. It’s kind of humbling, too. But this album, I really dig it, man. I think people are going to gravitate towards it."

I did a whole heap of the production. I got a joint on there with my boy Dilla. And I have another single coming and a couple of videos, and I’m about to hit the road with Common. So I feel like it’s me starting all over, which is great."

- Q-Tip (VILLAGE VOICE interview, 2007)

Coming on the heels of ...The Abstract's experimental feel, Q-Tip's follow-up is a much more polished affair. That isn't to say his jazz excursions are muted; quite the contrary, he's delivering an album that sounds more Tribe-esque than anything he'd done since that famed collective called it quits in the late 1990s. Dilla's essence is clearly a guiding light, but this is an almost entirely Kamaal Fareed affair. When he does call in reinforcements (Raphael Saadiq, D'Angelo and Norah Jones make appearances on The Renaissance) it's in service to the track, and the results are achingly gorgeous.

The single "Move" served as an appetizer, released digitally via iTunes, for fans in anticipation of the album's drop in the fall of 2008. "Move" is a coproduction with Dilla, and features a stuttered sample of the Jackson 5 classic "Dancing Machine." The song is indicative of what works about the album as a whole: it's catchy without trying too hard, an indicator of the easy groove he and Dilla captured consistently on Amplified and on ATCQ's final album (at the time), 1998's The Love Movement.

"Gettin' Up" is the album's first official single, and Tip builds on a sample of Black Ivory to deliver one of the most effervescent rap radio hits of the 2000s. The Queens representative gushes about the joys of love, while also delivering a perfect for waking up to a brand new day.

Relationships are front-and-center throughout The Renaissance, and the mood doesn't always stay so sunny. But even when Q-Tip is examining the conflicts and hardships that come with romantic entanglements; as on tracks like the groovy "We Fight/We Love," the kinetic "Manwomanboogie" and the more accusatory "You," he never sounds cynical or defeated in the game of love.

But make no mistake, Hip-Hop is on his mind, as well.

The album opens with "Johnny Is Dead" which sounds like a great, lost A Tribe Called Quest. As Q-Tip references our pop culture obsession (name-dropping Kevin Federline and Britney Spears' then-new marriage), declaring "the wilderness is wild to me" over Kurt Rosenwinkel's punchy rhythm guitar. "Won't Trade" is an extended baseball metaphor that no doubt pleased Phife Dawg from a distance; as Tip uses the sports metaphor to acknowledge it's not worth giving up a good thing for chasing something else in the streets.

"Dance on Glass" opens with an acapella verse that stands as Tip offering his take on the state-of-rap-music circa 2008, but Tip's wisdom doesn't sound bitter, he just sounds like a vet who has seen so many shifts that his take is shaped by ever-changing experience. Even on "Move" he takes time to body-slam "cold grits" emcees.

Classic Albums


Classic Albums: 'Graduation' by Kanye West

Apr 15, 2022


Classic Albums: 'Be' by Common

Jul 01, 2022


Classic Albums: 'Speakerboxxx/The Love Below' by OutKast

Jan 01, 1970

The RENAISSANCE was released the same week that Barack Obama was elected 44th President of the United States.

The moment was impactful for so much of Black America, and it wasn't lost on Q-Tip himself. Not only was the album release fated to coincide with Obama winning the election, Q-Tip originally featured words from the new commander-in-chief in an audio snippet.

"I feel that there are a lot of things in society that speak to a renaissance or change, and I feel like he embodies that," he would explain to SPIN. "I feel like, where I’m at, I’m into my music so much more, and I’m thinking about the relationship with the fans and being as creative as possible. And I feel like Barack Obama, kind of in a political sense, embodies that same kind of spirit as a Q-Tip or a Santogold or a Common. I feel like there is a synergy going on here in this country and abroad. I feel like the doors are open, and it’s time to push them wide open."

The album's spiritual centerpiece is "Life Is Better," a wistful midtempo track with Norah Jones that serves as Q-Tip's love letter to Hip-Hop. It's a concept that's well-worn in rap music at this point; but Q-Tip's song never feels trite or contrived. Quite the contrary, the song's pulsing keys and laid-back smoothness convey sincerity and wistfulness as Tip name-drops a litany of Hip-Hop legends; from Busy Bee to OutKast to Lil Wayne, explaining that "life is better, now that I found you."

There has now been more time since The Renaissance than the nine years that was between Amplified and The Renaissance. Q-Tip has had to cope with the loss of Phife Dawg, has helmed a final A Tribe Called Quest album (2016s We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service) and added his production talents to projects by Santigold, Esperanza Spaulding and Jay-Z and Kanye West. The album's closer "Shaka" neatly sums up so much about the man himself:

Here's a demonstration, with the excellence/ Reverse the pandemic that's filled with pestilence/ Who has his finger on the pulse of the b-boy? Serving fiends with the stream of a d-boy/ Who's well connected, you must respect it/ I'm driven with the spirits mentioned in this record/ Hopefully this serves as motivation/ The never sayin' die kind of sensation...

- Q-Tip ("Shaka")

What's new