Saturday, November 15
Q-Tip, The Cool Kids at House of Blues
It has been nine years since Q-Tip's last album yet strangely, it hasn't seemed so long. That says much about the enduring power of Q-Tip's old band, A Tribe Called Quest - guaranteed to be in heavy rotation on iPod playlists for any hip-hop fan over 30. Q-Tip, who is headlining as part of the 2K Sports Bounce Tour at the House of Blues this Saturday, finally returns from hiatus with The Renaissance, his first solo effort since 1999's Amplified.
The ensuing years have brought mostly turmoil to Tip. His 2002 follow-up, Kamaal the Abstract, was shot down by Arista Records for being too eclectic (read: commercially stillborn) with its live band jamming, Tip singing, and basically, very little in common with the finely crafted beats/rhymes/life aesthetic he shaped during the Tribe era.
It may be overly dramatic to call The Renaissance a redemption but it does what many fans hope but few would have expected: it recaptures some of the magic of yore without sounding like a pure throwback effort. It’s hard to break that down exactly, since The Renaissance isn’t trying to be ubër-contemporary either; no Auto-tuning for Tip (hey Kanye, you hear that?). But I’d like to think that the best songs on The Renaissance share something of the timeless quality of Tribe’s best songs.
The use of jazz samples certainly helps, but even more than a good loop, his music elicits an emotional reaction that’s somehow both melancholy and comforting, like rediscovering an old book from your childhood. However, though there’s something instantly familiar about Q-Tip’s new songs such as “Gettin’ Up,” “Believe” and “Johnny Is Dead,” the aesthetics aren’t cliche or recycled. The music doesn’t sound the same so much as feel the same. To be able to do that after a near-decade absence is accomplishment enough.
Q-Tip’s also a strikingly better MC; when’s the last time you could say that about any older rapper? He’s impressive with his quick, clipped couplets and a darting flow that plays off the spaces between the beats. Listen to him on “Won’t Trade” and he’s so slick on the track; it’s hard to imagine that he’s been MIA since the Clinton administration.
Counter to contemporary convention, there’s very few guests on here besides D’Angelo (he’s back?) and Norah Jones (didn’t see that one coming). Like Q-Tip’s image on the album cover, it’s just him standing alone - with his sampler. For his patient faithful, that’s all they’ve wanted.
Appearing on the same bill with Q-Tip are two Chicago rappers - The Cool Kids - who hadn’t even hit puberty yet when A Tribe Called Quest first formed. Their EP, The Bakesale, came out in late spring and they're supposedly dropping a full-length album any week now. The Cool Kids are part of what has been derisively described as the “hipster-hop” movement - smarmy, irony-laden rappers who rhyme about their quick-strike Nikes and tricked-out BMX bikes.
That all may be true but the Cool Kids have mastered more than Gen Y consumer elitism. Their music is a curious pastiche of any number of older, minimalist rap styles, especially from the 1980s with traces of Rick Rubin/Beastie Boys, DJ Magic MIke and Marley Marl colliding together (plus heavy shakes of early ‘00s Swishahouse sprinkled in). There’s a fascinating generation gap in evidence here - Q-Tip and A Tribe Called Quest gave birth to any number of imitators who’ve aped the early ‘90s sound of Tribe, Pete Rock, Diamond D, et. al. but the Cool Kids are jumping a half-step before that era: forget jazz and soul samples, they’re all about sparse drum machine clicks and 808 kicks.
The Cool Kids’ most obvious influence are the Neptunes, not just with their stripped-down sound, but Mikey Rocks and Chuck Inglish’s too-cool-for-school delivery bears close resemblance to Pharrell Williams’ detached style. The significant difference is that while Williams switches between his self-image as “Skateboard P” with bragging about his Rolls Royce Phantoms, the Cool Kids have no pretensions to the trappings of conventional wealth and power.
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Part of what makes their hipster-pose entertaining is how they expose how arbitrary hip-hop’s markers of influence are. As they rap on “A Little Bit Cooler,” “you judging me dog?/you shop at the mall/I shop at boutiques/limited quantity sneaks...you said my chain was weak/then you go get a rope?/you clown jokesters pose for poseur posters.” (It’s hard to tell how tongue-in-cheek the Kids are being here; the pair play their irony-cards close to the chest).
Hip-hop has long promoted different standards for cool - bragging about your pimp game, or kilo stash, or body count for example - but the Cool Kids just cut out the middleman. Their awareness of what’s cool is their claim to being cool. In a sense, they’re shifting the terrain of rap authenticity from possession to knowledge - it’s not he who has the most toys who wins in the Cool Kids’ world; it’s knowing which toys to own (and where to buy them) that sets you apart. Maybe if that “Cool Kids” moniker tires out, they can change their name to the Diabolical Epistemological Duo instead. (Oliver Wang)
Q-Tip and Cool Kids, along with The Knux and Pacific Division, perform at the House of Blues on Saturday, November 15.