Kamaal the Abstract, one of my favorite albums of 2002 that I still jam today, has never seen the light of CD shops. And it's a shame because the record is a sterling effort from Q-Tip, one of hip-hop's more progressive MCs with musical talent to spare. It was supposed to be the follow-up to Amplified, the New York rapper's 1999 solo debut that sold gold but was slightly conventional for Tip.
I received a press copy of Kamaal about a month before it was scheduled to drop that April. I even published a review praising Tip's insightful raps, loose vocalizing and spacious arrangements that braided Beatles-style pop-rock with rap and jazz. But Arista, Tip's label, got cold feet and felt the CD wouldn't sell. So the company pulled the plug.
"I was left scratching my head on that one," the rapper says. "[Arista president] L.A. Reid was behind it at first, then decided not to release it."
The rapper born Jonathan Davis soon left the label and hasn't released any music since '99. Now signed to Universal, Tip will finally break the silence early next year with a new album called The Renaissance, in stores Feb. 12. Kamaal the Abstract will be issued next summer. He's previewing new material on a current national tour with his buddy Common. The two headline Sonar Lounge on Wednesday night.
The former member of A Tribe Called Quest, one of hip-hop's all-time greatest groups, feels no trepidation about coming back after being away so long. With all the latest tired talk of hip-hop's dying artistry, the return of Q-Tip is a breath of fresh air.
"It's really exciting to be putting out new music now," says the rapper, calling from his New Jersey home. "I don't have any pressure. I can do what I want to do."
And that's good to know. If the lead single, "Work It Out," is any indication, The Renaissance should be an energetic and engaging listen. Besides, Tip has a pretty good track record with making solid music -- both as a member of Tribe and as a solo artist. His new joint, currently posted on his MySpace page, boasts a jittery funk groove layered with chunky guitar lines and tinkling keyboards.
"On the new album, it's got more of a band feel," says the 37-year-old rapper. "In hip-hop, the most important thing is the drums, and my drummer got the chops. So sonically, it's all there, man. It kinda sounds like a dusty, like the music could be a sample."
In that sense, Renaissance sounds as if it could be a tighter extension of Kamaal, which rolled on like a loose-limbed jam session. On that record, trilling flutes, grinding guitars and breezy organ solos pushed the clipped beats, and it was all overlaid with quirky hip-hop. Kamaal's adventurous blend of classic Prince, Stevie Wonder and Beatles elements presaged the direction Tip's Arista label mates OutKast took on Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, the biggest album of 2003.
"Kamaal the Abstract kinda set up what they did," Tip says. "I don't think they copied or bit off any of it. But they were on the same wavelength."
Although Tip hasn't released new music in a while, he has still been busy making it. But crazy label politics (he left Arista for DreamWorks, which was absorbed into Interscope, which he left for Geffen, then he left that company for Universal) largely prevented the release of new music. In the meantime, the artist has refined his DJing skills. But he missed having music out.
"I was like, 'Man, I gotta get something out there," he says. "It was frustrating, yeah. But all that's about to change. The old mode of the record industry and hip-hop isn't popping anymore. It's time to let the music breathe a little more, you know."
Welcome back, Tip.
See Common and Q-Tip at Sonar Lounge, 407 E. Saratoga St., at 8 Wednesday night. Tickets are $34 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or going to ticketmaster.com.