Unfortunately for Q-Tip, he did not die. If he had, the decade or so that’s passed since A Tribe Called Quest’s unfortunate implosion (and his subsequent wayward, pop-centric solo debut, Amplified) would’ve served as a reverent mourning period, with fans and naysayers alike belatedly acknowledging the nasally Queens emcee as one of the most influential rappers of all time. Death’s finality mocks you like that. Beatnik college-radio stations would organize day-long tributes, a pandemic of graffiti immortalizations would sweep inner cities, and pseudo-intellectuals would make wild revisionist claims that Amplified really was brilliant: “Breathe and Stop,” the douchebags would insist, was obviously an examination of Freud’s postulation that faith in God reflects an infantile need to believe in something larger than oneself.
But Q-Tip didn’t die, and there is no validation in living, so it became easy to forget how seminal he’d been to the development of hip-hop, his rep as leader of the ultimate jazz-rap crew ostensibly usurped by idleness and the emergence of ringtone rap. But after myriad delays and label woes, it’s clear the interminable wait for new material was worth it. Amplified was mostly a bastardization of a niche icon, normally purposeful content replaced with a brusque rash of corporate-scented jingles propped up by a cool Hype Williams video. But The Renaissance, thankfully, is aptly titled. “ManWomanBoogie” (featuring New York soulstress Amanda Diva) and “Move” give us back the guy who leans on ’70s-soul sampling and his own veracious stutter-stepped flow. The Raphael Saadiq collaboration “Fight/Love,” which examines a young person’s decision to join the military, reminds us of Tip’s natural ability to storytell his way to crisp social observation: “It’s cheaper than college/And you get guns/And you get knowledge/Looking for your soul/And WMD’s/You can’t find nothing/’Cause it’s empty.” The sonic aesthetics of “Dance on Glass,” meanwhile, confirm that he remains one of the flagship artists in the field of praising the auxiliary.
The Renaissance closes with “Shaka,” a spin on classic boom-bap Tribe preceded by a poignant, not-so-subtle clip from an Obama speech, making the record’s point abundantly clear: I’m back, and I brought hope with me. Fortunately for us, Q-Tip did not die.