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On “Johnny Is Dead,” the opening track of Q-Tip’s The Renaissance, the MC utilizes one of 2008’s biggest buzzwords: “It’s up to me to bring back the hope/Put feeling into music that you can quote,” he intones. The rest of the album delivers on that promise—neo-soul sounds, positive messages, relationship advice, and sophisticated wit, all set to a beat that you can dance to. Though a sample of a speech from Mr. Hope himself was excised from the album when it couldn’t get cleared, it’s obvious who taught Q-Tip about hope-mongering and how to succeed by being mature and keeping a calm demeanor. Sometimes mellow and dull is the best way.
Not that The Renaissance is boring. But it’s undeniably a low-key album, and that speaks to the fact that Q-Tip’s growing up—after all, with two albums shelved for sounding too uncommercial, The Renaissance is his first official release since Bill Clinton held office. He and his contemporaries now command their own market niche: I’m sure that nobody will ever completely tire of songs about trappin’ and ass-tappin’, but I’m also sure I’m not the only one who wants a rapper to relate to my old-guy concerns about my kids, my wife, the economy, and the state of the union. For a guy with a mortgage and tuition bills, songs about street life are now as much about indulging adolescent fantasies as dragon-slaying metal albums.
Q-Tip’s maturation isn’t just evident in the lyrics. “Johnny Is Dead” has him singing a chorus that recalls Steely Dan. “Manwomanboogie” uses a chilled-out rhythm sample from Can. “Life Is Better,” a duet with Norah Jones, features Norah Jones. So yes, The Renaissance is “mature”: It wouldn’t sound incongruous in the minivan between bouts of NPR fatigue. But that emotional growth sounds earned, and he’s not alone. Consider GZA, another hip-hop artist who peaked pre-Dubya. As much as I love his samurai aesthetic—his 1995 album, Liquid Swords, is among the best Wu-Tang Clan solo releases—it’s great to see him drop his ninja throwing stars in favor of a less juvenile, if equally nerdy, motif. Searching for an album title, he looked no further than the technical manual he was reading at the time, and on Pro Tools, he dispenses with the ruckus-baiting boasts and Shogun Assassin samples. In their place are thoughtful lyrics, a relaxed delivery, and, in the case of “Life Is a Movie,” accompaniment that sounds like a Dark Wave version of Gary Numan (who’s sampled on the track).
When Nas recorded his debut and career high point, 1994’s Illmatic, he wasn’t old enough to drink. The immaturity showed: Soon after, he and Jay-Z entered into a long-running and contrived pro-wrestling-style beef that seems petty and foolish in retrospect. The untitled album Nas released this year, by contrast, is both his most political record and arguably his best record since the late ’90s. Like Q-Tip, Nas has become adept at synthesizing more musical and lyrical ideas, addressing current events and incorporating more instrumentation, not to mention employing rock motifs in a way that doesn’t inspire Body Count references.
It would be wise not to make too much of all this: Enlightened MCs have fallen off before. The various members of Public Enemy have slid into irrelevance or disregard; Ice Cube, Ice-T, and LL Cool J are now better known as undiscriminating actors than rappers; De La Soul has steadily produced great music it can’t get hip-hop fans to hear en masse. There’s a serious risk that the genre will become defanged and innocuous; whatever soft rock had going for it, it wasn’t social relevance. And as economic conditions worsen, fans of every stripe might seek out bling-mongering music as a sort of wish-fulfillment escapism—a sort of hip-hop Pennies From Heaven.
But then, 50 Cent has taken a beating in the markets too; he recently groused to the press about the decline of some of his investments. Will that inspire him to create interesting music, or will he play it safe and stick to his formula? If a mature, sophisticated hip-hop is to succeed, it has to be listenable, personable, and avoid the self-righteousness that made so much early conscious hip-hop a chore to listen to. The window is open now. The stars who rose at the beginning of this decade now seem outdated: Eminem’s adolescent, matricidal issues, Jay-Z’s crass CEO ambitions, even Lil Wayne’s entertaining but confused worldview. While there’s no telling if Q-Tip is the harbinger of something new or a mere anomaly, there’s good reason to play The Renaissance—and hope for the best.