Don‘t call it a mea culpa. On Amplified, his 1999 solo debut, Q-Tip wrapped himself in furs, video ho’s and the ill-gotten booty of a thousand South African diamond mines, just like 90 percent of the nouveau-minstrel Negroes currently Hollywood-shuffling through hip-hop and R&B. White boys in Tijuana pullovers and dreadlocks and pork-abstaining Negroes in kente cloth and kufis were appalled; they‘d been betrayed. The favored son of the Native Tongues, the one who’d checked the rhymekicked itdropped verses from the abstract, had suddenly gone all 106 & Park, y‘all. Truth No. 1: Yes, the Playa Nigga persona was an ill fit, and Q-Tip never fully owned it. In press photos and music videos he was considerably less than himself, and he floundered. Truth No. 2: There was some solid hip-hop pop on Amplified that got ignored in the backlash, ’cause even the TRL crowd wasn‘t interested enough to make up the slack that was lost when the “conscious” fans bolted.
With Kamaal the Abstract, Q-Tip has made an album that longtime A Tribe Called Quest fans can and should embrace. But this is an album that defies expectation at every turn. It’s the hip-hoprock fusion that so many have struggled to pull off but only ended up bringing cross-racial dick waving set to guitar riffs and sampled beats; it‘s the hip-hopsoul cliche brushed off and made vivrant again. And it’s a continuation of the survey of hip-hop‘s jazz roots that Tip and Tribe began oh so many years ago. In its successful twining of genres, bringing them all back to the source, it’s just black.
Whom to compare it to? The usual suspects, if not for the usual reasons. With the live instrumentation, extended jams and solos, and an of the soul vibe that permeates the whole thing, the Roots are an immediate point of reference. So are Angie Stone and Erykah Badu, whose synthesis of ‘70s R&B with their own voices and visions on their last albums pushed them into the realm of can’t-be-fucked-with artists. Me‘shell is a valid comparison, and you’ll note the pre-niccapost-nigger influence of Roy Ayers, the Isley Brothers and the Ohio Players. But the name that most consistently springs to mind is Prince. Not 1999 or even Dirty Mind Prince, but Lovesexy, Around the World in a Day and Parade Prince. Avant-Negro Prince. Not-remotely-concerned-with-if-you-get-it-or-not Prince. Kamaal is just that ambitious.
TipKamaal went to the heavyweights to pull this album together: Kenny Garrett, Gary Thomas and Kurt Rosenwinkel are featured, and in the meaty but mesmerizing grooves they forge is the stuff of both headphone highs and roller-rink rocking, skating, rolling and bouncing. Tip‘s vocals — yes, he sings as well as raps, and is better than you’d think — and his lyrics (which address everything from racial profiling to a high-heel fetish) mesh so smoothly with the musical bed that they‘re both beside the point and gingerly underscored; you can either dig in to really appreciate them or just glide on top. On the lovely but brief ballad “Caring,” his sleepy voice braids with a backing female vocalist who carries the brunt of the harmony against a stark piano canvas; “Do You Dig You” has his voice melting into that same woman’s as an out-front flute and stair-stepped bass carry them through an extended vamp; the funky “Heels” is “Vivrant Thing” reworked: The woman being addressed is no longer a video ho, but his girl, who indulges his high-heel fantasies with nary a brand name cited. Things turn slightly “Raspberry Beret” on “Barely in Love” as handclaps keep time, tambourines jangle sexily, and the drum rolls powerfully. The closing “Even if It Is So,” a shout-out to a hard-working single mom, jells into a proto-house workout that builds slowly from piano, bass and multilayered vocals. It also contains the perfect summation of Tip as he exclaims at one point, “I‘m just an arty-music gigolo!” (Yes to a Joe Claussell or Masters at Work remix of this track; no to the Neptunes or Timbaland.)
What really makes Kamaal the Abstract work is that the self-conscious experimentation and boundary crashing are coupled with levity; the flaws and gaffes are kept in the mix, and so is humor. At the conclusion of “Barely in Love,” you hear Tip playfully chastise a fellow player with “You hit the mike.” Though the production and arrangements are pristine, they also breathe: When a drum fill is missed or a vocal comes in half a beat off, the missteps aren’t edited out. And TipKamaal also pokes fun at his own artiness: “Blue Girl” ends with him declaiming with mock impatience, “Yeah, yeah, the birds,” before a chirping sample is dropped in, having nothing at all to do with anything that‘s come before. He did it just because he could.
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