Happy 10th Anniversary to Q-Tip’s second studio album The Renaissance, originally released November 4, 2008.
Upon its arrival in record stores on November 4, 2008, Q-Tip’s second solo record The Renaissance was one of the most celebrated hip-hop events of that year. An immediate fan favorite and critical darling, this brisk batch of songs extended Q-Tip’s career dominance which stretched back as far as 1990. But Q-Tip didn’t arrive at the birthplace of The Renaissance by accident. It was the culmination of personal and professional milestones that brought him to this inevitable point of creative clarity.
Born Jonathan William Davis—his name would change to Kamaal Ibn John Fareed upon his conversion to the Islamic faith in the mid-1990s—music became an essential component of the soon-to-be emcee’s upbringing. Taking up the stage name Q-Tip in his late teens, the native New Yorker and lyricist went on to be a prolific persona.
It wasn’t long before Q-Tip joined with his fellow brothers in rhyme—the late Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White—to form A Tribe Called Quest. They, along with Monie Love, the Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah and De La Soul, counted themselves among the East Coast headquartered Native Tongues collective, arguably the brightest visionaries of the early-to-mid 1990s hip-hop era. Yet, it was A Tribe Called Quest who streaked to the front of the pack. Signed to Jive Records, Tribe released a blistering trio of recordings that became classics of the period: People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990), The Low End Theory (1991) and Midnight Marauders (1993).
Not content to sit still, Q-Tip kept searching for the pulse of artistic furtherance. Against the backdrop of growing tensions that eventually splintered this hip-hop band of brothers, Q-Tip created the production clique The Ummah within A Tribe Called Quest. The Ummah figured prominently within the group’s most divisive pair of LPs, Beats, Rhymes and Life (1996) and The Love Movement (1998).
Upon the dissolution of A Tribe Called Quest in 1998, the solo album that everyone was expecting was already well underway for release in the following year. Primarily scripted and produced by Q-Tip and his Ummah colleague James “J Dilla” Yancey, the Arista Records sanctioned Amplified (1999) didn’t sink, but it didn’t necessarily swim either.
Its two hits—“Breathe and Stop” and “Vivrant Thing”—kept Q-Tip on the charts, but many felt Amplified swung too far into an increasingly mainstreamed hip-hop genre bereft of integrity. In response, Q-Tip “let go” of his commercial ambitions to move the dial in the opposite direction with the appropriately titled Kamaal the Abstract.
Composed over two years, the long player was a striking fusion of jazz, alternative rhythm and blues and funk. Upon its completion and presentation to Arista’s corporate heads, however, they saw no potential in the project, only problems. Kamaal the Abstract was first delayed and then stunningly withheld by Arista in 2002, much to Q-Tip’s chagrin. It would not see the light of day until released on Battery Records—a smaller arm of Q-Tip’s “home imprint” Jive Records—in 2009, one year after The Renaissance, making his originally intended sophomore set, effectively, his third album instead. And so, The Renaissance was conceived (via Universal Motown) following the engineered birth of one effort and the painful abortion of another.
Living up to its namesake as a living, breathing work of contemporary black art, its inherent ability to age gracefully is audaciously on display. The searing groove of “Move,” co-directed with the then-deceased J Dilla, notwithstanding, nearly the entirety of The Renaissance is lyrically and musically sculpted by Q-Tip himself.
Versus trying to adhere too closely to trends or abstractionisms, The Renaissance strikes a heady balance between the two sides. Q-Tip’s intellect is at its breakneck best on “Dance on Glass” and “Shaka,” his wordplay cutting across his interest in his own skillset and some of his personal effects, romantic or otherwise. For those on the hunt for them, there are hooks to be had here, but the song cycle is limited to a lean twelve track maximum. Nothing feels out of place or overstays its welcome and most importantly, all of the entries showcase Q-Tip’s hallmark handsome pace and flow as an emcee.
Sonically, Q-Tip’s aural affection toward jazz fusion (“Johnny Is Dead”), modish R&B (“We Fight/We Love”) and funk (“ManWomanBoogie”) can be easily heard throughout—they’re also set within a vibrant hip-hop framework that embellishes each track with loops, beats and samples.
The latter element is evinced wonderfully on two of the three tracks eventually earmarked as singles: “Gettin’ Up” and “Move.” The former recycles the Black Ivory chestnut “You and I” giving the song an optimistic grooviness fittingly forecasting the hopeful disposition of a nation on the cusp of a Barack Obama presidency. The latter composition features a spicy interpolation of the Jackson 5 proto-disco workout “Dancing Machine.” Then there are the eclectic guest features on The Renaissance: Raphael Saadiq (on “We Fight/We Love”), Amanda Diva (on “ManWomanBoogie”), Norah Jones (on “Life Is Better”) and D’Angelo (on “Believe”). Each guest brings their own flavor in service to Q-Tip, but at no time do they overcrowd him.
Commercially, The Renaissance had fair gains even if it did not secure a silver, gold or platinum certification. This was surprising given the album’s strength as a singles vehicle with “Gettin’ Up,” “Move” and “Life Is Better.” Thankfully, the project wasn’t made for the sort of chart busting orthodoxy that ultimately hindered Amplified. Additionally, while it was a lauded affair, it was not intentionally designed to curry that sort of favor either.
No, The Renaissance was simply the product of one man totally in touch with his muse. As such, he let his work speak for him and judging by its continued resonance, Q-Tip was resoundingly successful in his aim.