The greatest aesthetic lesson to learn from past masters like David Bowie and Madonna is the value of reinvention. I still recall my teenaged shock at the ’86 Grammy Awards telecast, when award-presenting Prince emerged from the wings in a penguin tux with fingerwaves, an absolute about-face from the paisley psychedelia of his previous Around the World in a Day incarnation. The whole business of living revolves around change and re-creation, which is why chameleons like Bowie and ’em have transfixed the public’s attention.
Ever since Q-Tip became boys with Leonardo DiCaprio, New York dailies have been reporting sightings of the Abstract Poet as if their writers went home every night bumping A Tribe Called Quest. But for real for real, who could Tip be to these cats? The guy on that Janet Jackson song, maybe? Tribe never scored the pop appeal of Puff or Will Smith, so what could they be thinking?
(Likewise, in a classically crass record-industry move to capitalize on the radio-friendly- unit-shifting success of Q-Tip’s summer smash “Vivrant Thing,” Jive Records has released The Anthology, a collection of Tribe’s greatest misses. Largely drawn from the holy triumvirate of Tip, Phife, and Ali’s first three joints—People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, The Low End Theory, Midnight Marauders—the magic’s undeniably here. That hyperkinetic energy between the boho Q-Tip and Phife the B-boy supercharges most of Anthology. But since the compiled songs weren’t all chart toppers or even commercial singles, I’d rather hear “Butter,” “Youthful Expression,” or “8 Million Stories” than the Jive-selected “Keeping It Moving” or “Find a Way.” I’d also strongly recommend that newcomers buy the original albums for their fluid ingenuity, and their bonus beats: precise, bass heavy, and just right. . . . )
With Amplified, Tip gets brand new. Moomba reservations, Hendrixian head scarves, booty-filled Hype Williams videos, posing-in-Honey-with-no-drawers-on bravado: Q-Tip reinvented. Before, Q-Tip was the quintessential urban Nubian prince, repping an African-derived paradigm with the Native Tongues. He was enlisting the Nation of Islam to help him settle a beef with Wreckx-N-Effect over an eye jammy. Until Phife fine-tuned his own metaphorical fury of allusion on Low End, Q-Tip was the centerstage wunderkind of Tribe—which was largely Tip’s brainchild. Back then, he was at the vanguard of a hiphop segment dabbling in conceptualism and irony in lieu of dookie-rope caricaturist gangsterism. He was also a superho.
We’re merely distant cousins, it’s said, of who we were even five years ago. So then who is this far-removed relative, Q-Tip ’99? Libidinously, the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree; the former MC Love Child is father to the man: “The movement is on/Mild-mannered mommies in Victoria thongs,” he rhymes on the hot second single “Breathe and Stop.” After trading flirting with being (semi)famous for actually being (semi)famous, Q-Tip restores the luster dulled by the comparatively malodorous records Tribe put out in their career twilight. His new videos might be jiggified, but Tip makes the distinction between him and others of that ilk clear on “Things U Do”: “See me in your Bentley, just honk, yo/And just know that your man too can get that/And just know that I don’t really want that.” And though admittedly Tip can come a little self-absorbed sometimes, he disarms such neuroses, literally with his mouth full of cereal, while introducing “All In”: “Yo, niggas be on the mic, they be all serious. They supposed to be serious, but effortless.” (Hey, didn’t the Artist eat Cap’n Crunch somewhere on Emancipation?)
Tip has definitely raised his energy—hence the title Amplified—but, unfortunately, this heightened inner chi doesn’t sustain throughout the album. “Moving With U,” “Go Hard,” and “Do It” could all be slightly tweaked outtakes from Tribe’s 1998 The Love Movement. A rising sound effect, resembling the last seconds of “99 Luftballons,” pops up repeatedly, in “Breathe and Stop,” “All In,” and Tip’s rebirth anthem, “Vivrant Thing.” Production duo the Ummah (Tip and Jay Dee) give Q-Tip solo a ballsier, punchier sound than Tribe’s. But expect an Amplified with at least half its tracks banging like the first two singles, and you’ll be disappointed.
(Q-Tip’s rhyme style hasn’t evolved much since the music on Anthology, but Tribe records were always more about his nasal cadence and the conversational ebb and flow of his and Phife’s mic interaction. The title MC means master of ceremony; some people who emcee don’t know what this term means. . . . )
As if following the edict of a certain New Age guru, Q-Tip is avidly pursuing the grandest version of the greatest vision he’s ever held about who he is. Who can blame him? And posing De La Soul’s musical question, what does it all mean? Constant evolution causes expansion. Wait till he gets to Hollywood.