Many rappers have tried to bring jazz into the hip-hop world, whether it be incorporating samples from classic jazz standards or actually using a full-piece band to back the rapper’s flow. Rap at its core is vocal jazz, with ideas popping and pouring out of the MC’s mouth in hopes that their improv will have the same bite that a Charlie Parker solo did 70 years ago. Unfortunately, most of the rap community has abandoned the jazz building blocks once built by Gang Starr, DeLa Soul, and Tribe Called Quest.
On “Kamaal the Abstract”, Tribe frontman Q-Tip attempts to bring it all back to the smooth sound that has been trampled and forgotten in favor for the mundane Southern rap of monetary masturbation and sexual innuendo. (We get it Lil Wayne- you’re not actually talking about a lolli-pop). Q-Tip’s jazz aim is in the right direction, considering his last outing “The Renaissance” was a mediocre attempt at reminding hip-hop that he was a production mastermind way before Kanye came along.
The highlight of the album is probably “Do You Dig U?”, a sleek, syrupy pool of organ runs over a tippy-tap drum kick that is reminiscent of The Roots. The mid-song flute splashes are the perfect touch, although you can’t help but wish for Erykah Badu to suddenly make a guest appearance.
The same chill vibe can be heard on “Feelin'”, a smooth jam that will have you slowly nodding your head like old school Tribe did back in ’91. But a minute in, just when you’re ready to grab your Reebok Pumps to go shoot some hoops, a three minute organ solo kicks in that would even ground Dee Brown. The same problem arises on several songs on the album, with Q-Tip maybe trying a little too hard to stay honest to the whole “jazz” thing, relying predominantly on organ solos, which are never a good thing (just try listening to a Doors album from start to finish).
The style of jazz on the album is also suspect, less like the classic be-bop that Gang Starr sampled, and sounding more like something you’d hear on the Weather Channel. Jazz shouldn’t sound so clean; it should be so gritty that you can almost smell the cheap cigarette smoke in the air. Q-Tip’s brand of jazz only seems to be missing a little Kenny G to bring it all together, and that’s really a shame. It sounds like Q-Tip surrounded himself with some great jazz musicians. On “Abstractisms” you can hear their immense talent at moments when the music is on that edge that makes jazz so unpredictable and raw. Too bad the recording quality is so clean that every improvisation sounds rehearsed.
Mid-album Q-Tip abandons the jazz tip altogether, attempting to sing, a skill that was never shown on any Tribe albums, and for good reason. While his nasally rap vocals are unique and irresistable, his singing voice is what you’d imagine T-Pain sounding like without his trusty auto-tuner.
Track #9 “Even if She is So” gives us hope that Q-Tip still has something to offer to the rap community. It’s catchy, has a jazz vibe, yet stays grounded in hip-hop from start to finish. The production is classic Q-Tip, and if you strain your ears just hard enough, you might just hear the ghosts of Phife and Mohommed, completing the puzzle that would make it a classic Tribe ditty.