4 out of 5 Stars
With his a cappella tour de force at the start of “Dance On Glass,” Q-Tip — ex-member of hip-hop powerhouse A Tribe Called Quest — proves his voice is the only instrument he needs. “Corny rap style niggas / They lack the pedigree / Deep waters they be in when they just a manatee / Who, me I’m unaffected, the whale, the hammerhead.” This zinger is merely a sample slice from the song’s exquisitely metaphor-crammed intro. Q-Tip’s lyrics are poetry. He has an inexplicable know-how for the potential energy of words, colliding them together in mouthwateringly fresh ways.
On The Renaissance, he keeps his linguistic virtuosity popping with remarkable consistency, pummeling the brain while slathering the ears with rhymes. And while he spends a good chunk of time on the album boasting about his elevated status in the lukewarm world of hip hop, he does so for good reason: As an MC, he’s been light-years ahead of the pack for twenty years.
While Q-Tip’s first solo outing, Amplified, found him shedding his alter ego Abstract in favor of more superficial ruminations on booty and bling, The Renaissance marks a welcome return to his cerebral roots. On the narratively ambitious “WeFight/WeLove,” he embarks upon a thematic safari. Showing off his flair for storytelling, he flows lucidly among three linked vignettes: The story of a heartbroken man on a cigarette break, his ex-girlfriend who is now unhappily married and his subsequent enrollment in the U.S. Army. Tackling subjects as sprawling as fate’s role and the theory that men join the military because they feel socially deprived, the song could serve as fodder for an entire feature film.
On “ManWomanBoogie,” Q-Tip tosses government oppression, racial barriers and gender roles together into an orgiastic melting pot dance party. “The bluest collar on the brownest of skin / White, yellow, red too / They don’t care who it is / They’re watching you / Conspiracy so you might as well dance / Get down Zulu.” Q-Tip’s songs certainly have messages, though they’re seldom clearly delineated or obvious. Instead, he opts for the abstract, leaving lyrical breadcrumb trails for listeners to follow and form their own conclusions.
But, even if Q-Tip were rapping about wiping his ass, his style would be just as captivating. His buttery flow morphs to wrap around the structure of each song, the words tumbling off of his tongue effortlessly. Q-Tip doesn’t rap over songs; he raps with them. His voice becomes another instrument in the mix, lending the songs a cohesion and authenticity sorely lacking in the world of modern rap.
On “ManWomanBoogie,” Q-Tip conducts a question-and-answer session with a free-doodling bass. On J Dilla-produced single “Move,” his flow surfs breezily on a shape-shifting ocean of noise. With psychedelic neon-synth drones, gurgling backing vocals and blips and beeps that sound as if they’re coming from a submarine control room, the track exemplifies the vivid production throughout the album.
With The Renaissance, Q-Tip proves he hasn’t lost the slightest touch with his philosophical roots. At a ripe 38, it seems he’s growing even wiser with age.