Q-Tip, "The Renaissance" (Universal/Motown)
Q-Tip's hometown paper the Daily News has called the influential New York rapper and producer "the Axl Rose of rap." The artist -- real name Jonathan Davis, though he became Kamaal Fareed when he converted to Islam, and he's also worked under the stage name the Abstract -- helped expand hip-hop's horizons in the '80s, steering it away from gangsta cliches and embracing jazz and a wider musical pallet with A Tribe Called Quest, peers in the Native Tongues posse with De La Soul, the Black Sheep and the Jungle Brothers, and an inspiration to artists such as Common, Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco.
Alas, A Tribe Called Quest split up in 1998, and Q-Tip seemed to be unable to follow up his disappointing 1999 solo bow, "Amplified," either abandoning one finished studio album after another, or having them rejected by his label. Now, after nearly a decade in the shadows, the 38-year-old enigma has returned to the spotlight, reuniting his old crew for the Rock the Bells tour last summer, and finally unleashing his sophomore solo album, optimistically but appropriately titled "The Renaissance."
"Where have I been?" Q-Tip has said. "I was waiting for the time to be right." Indeed, a sense of renewal and historic change permeates all 12 tracks: The disc was originally set to open with a song called "Shaka," featuring excerpts of a speech by Barack Obama, though it now closes the album without the presence of the history-making Democrat. Nevertheless, the message is clear: It's time for the African-American community to abandon the nihilism of gangsta rap and the cycle of violence in the streets and work for positive change.
This is not a new message for Q-Tip, and he's been more eloquent when delivering it in the past. Nor are the jazzy backing tracks here anything new musically. But there's an undeniable joy in hearing that particular nasal rhyming again; his musical style was always so far ahead of its time that it still sounds absolutely fresh, and even the obligatory cameos here sound inspired, including turns by Raphael Saadiq ("We Fight/We Love"), Norah Jones ("Life is Better") and the previously also missing-in-action D'Angelo ("Believe").
In short, "The Renaissance" leaves no doubt that Q-Tip is indeed back. Axl can only hope to fare as well.