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What Good Is A Ear If a Q-Tip Isn’t In It?: Thoughts on The Renaissance

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The Renaissance feels like a mix of all the rumors and half-completed projects that’ve bounced around Q-Tip’s career during the 2000s. It’s less electro, but similarly futuristic feeling in some way that makes sense when you hear it but can’t really be described. There’s also a clear flow and trajectory to the songs and their sequencing but because the songs also sound like odds and ends, it feels like a really well put-together mix CD from a friend, where the transitions are perfect but the tracks themselves don’t share a whole lot of commonality.

Nothing on the album sounds like it’s interacting with music being made in 2008–but that’s a compliment–and the best songs, like “Move” or “You” occupy a weird place between sounding from the 1990s and still ready for the radio right now. This becomes even more impressive when you compare the best moments to a bad moment like “Won’t Trade”, which besides being a mixed sports metaphor love song, has a beat by Mark Ronson who made his career sounding defiantly retro with Amy Winehouse last year. And so, you have this song that’s trying to sound old and retro but is so specific in its retro signifiers that it just sounds like it’s from 2007, which you know, is probably when the beat was sent Tip’s way. In contrast, a song like “Gettin Up” with echoing Black Ivory chords and Tip’s flow invokes Tribe like crazy but feels current too and not only because it mentions e-mail.

There’s a jagged and ineffective transition between Tip’s straight, rhyming and the production which skates by on sounding cohesive enough but still falls out of place too many times. “Johnny Is Dead” has a weird, jarring feel-good chorus, “We Fight/Love” ends up in bad neo-soul territory, and “Manwomanboogie” sounds like well, a song with a title like “Manwomanboogie”. And the appearance of Norah Jones on “Life is Better” takes you back to a time when pop music for whatever reason cared about a chick that should’ve never become anything but a chick with a good voice on Blue Note records.

There’s an over-arching theme of love that’s palpable and affecting and not Common’s silly new-age sense of universal love but just romantic love and it’s wonderful possibilities. And when everything works, the warm soul echoes and equally warm electronica squelches perfectly complement Tip’s sincerity and there’s really nothing you’d rather be listening to at that moment. Hazy funk guitar on “Johnny Is Dead”, those piano chords from “Getting Up”, everything about “You” (maybe the first fully successful rap ballad), stretched-out keyboard tones on “Believe”, Nintendo arpeggiations mixing with in the distance crooning on “Shaka”…it’s almost there, so close and so, you come out of The Renaissance feeling a little ripped-off.

The problem with many new internet-oriented rappers releasing way too much music, both feeding their hype and covering their artistic asses–if a song’s not good, no biggie, we’ll wait for next week’s “leak”–is indeed something worth calling “bullshit” on, but it seems a little better than artists like Tip having nearly a decade to make a classic and turning out an alright album that was nevertheless, clearly cobbled together is frustrating and if you think hard enough, infuriating.

As has become something of a habit here, looking at almost-successful albums from the point of view of sequencing is always fun.

1. Believe
2. Johnny Is Dead
3. Gettin Up
4. Official
5. We Fight/Love
6. Manwomanboogie
7. Dance on Glass
8. Move
9. Won’t Trade
10. Life is Better
11. Shaka
12. You

The problem with starting the album with a track as immediate as “Johnny Is Dead” is that is deceives the listener in terms of what to expect from this album. “Believe” is a fine track and has solid rapping on it, but it hints at the soul-oriented nature of the album. From there, we get into the rap tracks, while also moving “Won’t Trade”–which sorta sucks but also is easy to like–towards the end, giving “Move” something that can maybe sort of accompany its energy. I put all of the almost rambly, neo-soulish tracks together because none of them are bad and they actually work better as one slog through than returning as the unfortunate end-of-album combo of “Dance on Glass” and “Life Is Better”.

And then you know, you follow-up “Dance on Glass” with the undeniable “Move”, follow that up with “Won’t Trade” which keeps the energy level and then slowly move back into ballad land. “Shaka” is a fine album closer, but “You” summarizes the album’s over-arching themes better and actually has more emotional pull than “Shaka” despite that song being about dead people. Tip does a better tribute to death in “Life is Better” when his laundry list of rap heroes is interrupted a second time by “Where my nigga Dilla at?”…it’s like Pimp C throwing in a “I really miss Robert Davis” really early on in Underground Kingz; powerful because it’s just stuck in there, as if the mourning rapper just can’t not mention the death even if it’s a little off-topic.

Written by Brandon

October 28th, 2008 at 5:02 am