Q-Tip wants to put "new flavor in your ear." In the process, he hopes you feel the love, too. The rapper's engaging new album, The Renaissance, glows with loving, downright sunny sentiments often unheard these days in mainstream hip-hop - or any other urban style, for that matter.
With all the talk of hope surrounding the historic presidential election of Barack Obama, it seems appropriate that such an album landed in stores on Election Day.
"I felt the music needed to have a reawakening of the spirit," says Q-Tip, who plays the 9:30 Club in Washington on Sunday. "That's what music is supposed to be there for."
The former member of A Tribe Called Quest, one of rap's most celebrated groups, delivers one of the more fluid hip-hop albums to come out this year. But nine years, an eternity in hip-hop, have flown by since Q-Tip's last CD. That album, his 1999 gold-selling solo debut Amplified, spawned the hits "Vivrant Thing" and "Breathe and Stop."
Convoluted label politics (the rapper bounced around five labels in his time away) kept an official follow-up off store shelves.
His 2002 album, the musically ambitious Kamaal the Abstract, was almost released by Arista Records. Promotional copies were sent out, and the set garnered generally strong reviews. But at the last minute, the company decided to shelve the project. The suits thought Q-Tip's winding excursions into Beatles-influenced pop and Blue Note-style jazzy funk wouldn't generate sales.
But Q-Tip, whose real name is Jonathan Davis, was unhampered by his purgatorial situation with the label. He soon left, and his creativity flowered.
"I always stay creative, so my process is always ongoing," says the artist, who spoke last week from a tour stop in Austin, Texas. "It doesn't really stop or change too much. Things don't affect it."
Aqueous with jazz-kissed inflections, Q-Tip's style has remained mostly unchanged over the past 20 years. But without his down-to-earth rhyme partner, Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest, the rapper's smart-alecky lines seem to melt more into the atmospheric arrangements. That was especially true on the commercialized Amplified and the spacious Kamaal. On Renaissance, as the upbeat music swells and recedes, underpinned by elastic bass lines, Q-Tip's nasally delivery is still accentual.
"I just wanted to do something that has a lot of musicality, a lot of melody," says the rapper, who comes off as shy and distant on the phone, nothing like his kinetic stage persona. "I wanted something that was thoughtful."
Q-Tip, who produced the 12-cut album, augmented the dusty samples and head-bobbing beats with live instrumentation. Guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel especially adds inventive lines. The native New Yorker also recruits guest vocalists - Raphael Saadiq, D'Angelo, Amanda Diva and Norah Jones - to vary the textures and colors to his warm, laid-back grooves.
"A lot of the producers out there are not musicians, they're programmers," Q-Tip says. "They don't know much about melody and harmony, and I wanted to bring that back."
Lyrically, Q-Tip is hopeful about spiritual and romantic love without ever coming off as lame or didactic. He generally explores the dynamics of male-female relationships, eschewing the juvenile, bitter bickering usually heard in urban music.
On the first single, the wistful "Gettin' Up," he's charming and charismatic as he tries to woo his lady back. Over a funky, hissing syncopated beat on "Manwomanboogie," the rapper centers on the silliness of miscommunication between the sexes.
The lean, flexible music drives it all. That point is made clear by the album's cover art: Q-Tip is dapper in a concrete-gray, three-piece suit as he obscures his face with an MPC 2000XL sampler.
He says, "The music should be for emotion, not images. That's what I wanna do, you know: Make people feel some hope in music again."
if you go
See Q-Tip at 7 p.m. Sunday at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. N.W. in Washington. Tickets are $32.50. Call 800-955-5566 or go to tickets.com.