Capitalism’s a bitch. When a rapper as omnipotent as Q-Tip — member of recently reunited hip-hop iconoclast A Tribe Called Quest — has a record shelved for seven years due to its lack of commercial appeal, the whole situation makes you want to put a stick up the ass of the studio bureaucracy and either twist it in or shove it up further.
Kamaal the Abstract
But the truth is, after giving Kamaal a spin, it’s to easy figure out why Big Brother gave the album a time out. Q-Tip isn’t even rapping on half of the thing. And the floaty, vocal-less free jazz interludes that comprise a good percentage of the record would certainly serve as sleep medication for those who have cut their teeth on Weezy and Jay-Z.
Kamaal the Abstract is a bit of a mess, but it’s a mess that’s wholeheartedly self-conscious and listening to it is an absolute pleasure. With the album more about experimentation than crystallization, Q-Tip is in peak chameleonic form here, jumping from Nutella-smooth R&B hoo-hooing (“Blue Girl”) to straight-up Stevie Wonder style pop (“Barely In Love”). He even sneaks in “Caring,” an earnest two-minute lullaby that wouldn’t feel out of place at the epilogue of a Disney musical. And most of this works because the man can sing, a godsend that rescues the album from overindulgence.
The only real clunker is “Heels,” a hard-pounding rhinoceros stomp about girls who look good “closed or open toe.” While packing its fair share of clever rhymes, its eye-rolling refrain of “Real heel / High heel” feels like a dead joke against the blunt, bottom-heavy acoustics, which clash clumsily with the rest of the album’s cosmic arrangements.
Kamaal takes Tribe’s flirtations with jazz to a new level, even borrowing field virtuosos Kenny Garett, Gary Thomas and Kurt Rosenwinkel to flesh out the jazzy aesthetic on a couple of tracks. The name of the game here is improvisation. The album pumps out the jazzy current that always ran beneath Tribe’s tunes and lets it loose in all of the music’s non-linear glory.
While the results of this experimentation may not vary in terms of quality (all the music here sounds delicious), they do vary in immediacy. “Abstractionisms” is a roundhouse kick in the chest, building to a fittingly abstract two-minute climax with Kenny Garrett spewing his guts via saxophone over a hotbed of guitar shredding and tense, off-the-cuff piano fills.
“Do You Dig U?” starts off strong as a spacey lounge shuffle but drifts in orbit. After a false ending, the track waves its tentacles for four more minutes, “anchored” by Thomas’s ethereal flute wanderings. Going both nowhere and everywhere, “Do You Dig U?” wades nonchalantly in tight improvisation without ever truly evolving structurally. The track is both one of the album’s highlights and a perfect example of its occasional failure to congeal.
And while the music works independently of Q-Tip’s magnetic flow, his rapping is still sorely missed. Lyrics like, “Did you write the hit? / Did you hit the bong? / Even if you did it with your friend under covers / it’s you,” are cryptic, even for The Abstract (the rapper’s alter-ego). And while rapping is the perfect outlet for Q-Tip’s free associations, his frequent R&B vibing on Kamaal leaves his abstractions feeling a little, erm, abstract.
And the lyrics on “Barely In Love” are surprisingly vapid: “$500 in the bank / things are looking bad / Imagine if we gotta eat / well things are looking sad.”
Warts and all, Kamaal the Abstract is certainly one of the most intriguing hip-hop releases of the year. And with music this tastefully adventurous, it’s hard not to write these critiques off as pseudo-critiques and simply let Q-Tip swab your jaded ears.