There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Who’d have thought Q-Tip was having trouble attracting women? Male hiphop heads—backpackers and thugs alike—have always loved his old act, A Tribe Called Quest, either for its driving beats and jazz-influenced loops or for its quirky lyrics. At the same time, the former trio of Q-Tip, Phife, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad also held a special place in the hearts of female rap fans. I think “cute” was the word most used to describe the Tribesmans’ boho-b-boy image. Phife was boyishly mischievous, sporting a trendy basketball jersey and boasting endlessly about his rhyming prowess. Muhammad, the producer and DJ, was the quiet one, standing sullenly behind his turntables with those big, pathetic eyes. And, of course, there was Q-Tip, the Tribe’s leading man.
The “Queens representative” has always been sort of a ladies’ man. The Technicolor fabrics that Tip wore early on, the abstract rhymes, the impish, almost cartoon voice didn’t diminish his appeal a bit. Whether in his microscopic role as Janet Jackson’s ill-fated beau in Poetic Justice or in his widely rumored relationship with Nuyorican radio superjock Angie Martinez, folks saw Q-Tip as quite the romantic figure. This was, after all, the man who penned hiphop’s perennial love theme: LL Cool J could lick his lips all he wants, but when the first few notes of “Bonita Applebum” drifted out of the speakers, the estrogen bubbled over and it became abundantly clear that the ladies loved Q-Tip.
So what’s with the sudden makeover? Q-Tip’s highly anticipated solo debut, Amplified, finds the MC on the cover with arms outstretched and chest bare in a gaudy fur coat looking prettier than Tyson Beckford—hell, Tyra Banks—coming down the runway. He’s surrounded by four other fashion-plate versions of himself, each looking too sexy for his own good. Ugh. Along with “Vivrant Thing,” Tip’s party-rocking but lyrically vacuous single (from Violator: The Album), the jacket art flashes a disheartening sign of what’s inside.
The great thing about Q-Tip used to be that he was inarguably a sex symbol without trying. In fact, the self-proclaimed “Abstract Poet” seemed far too concerned with matters of depth to get bogged down in the pursuit of knockable boots. With all his odd phrasing and non sequiturs, we didn’t always know exactly what he was talking about, but, usually, it wasn’t just sex. Even songs like “The Infamous Date Rape” and “Everything Is Fair” kept the subject of male-female relations safely away from raunch. The “pound the poontang” blatancy of “Electric Relaxation” was a rarity indeed. A Tribe Called Quest’s dull fifth and final album, The Love Movement, depicts a more romantic Tip, but it’s still more in the head—and the headphones—than in the bed.
With Amplified, it appears that Tip is now leaning toward a simpler type of love movement. On “Breathe and Stop,” he points out the target: “Bruh, look, the movement is on/Mild mannered mommies in Victoria thongs.” Four whole songs and what seems like every other line on the album are dedicated to the honeys. And the Abstract Poet isn’t exactly sounding oblique these days: “On the dance floor chicks get horny/Hopin’ that they all move on me,” he raps on “All In.” There’s plenty of b-boy bravado to go along with it, but very little substance otherwise. Gone are the days of Q-Tip’s industry commentary (“Rap Promoter,” “Show Business”) and social observations (“Sucka Nigga,” “Description of a Fool”). The new Q is slicker, sexier, and way more boring.
Oddly, the only cut with any evocative lyrical content is a hidden track buried at the end of the album behind that atrocious song with Korn. “Do It, Be It, See It” is a relatively moving autobiographical tale. It touches on some of the details of Q-Tip’s life that you might have heard about in the media: his conversion to Islam, the fire that burned down his house and destroyed his record collection, and Tribe’s breakup. “So drunk in those days I truly was amazed,” Tip says about his early success, “How I got up enough to make tunes.” Other than that, Amplified would be a snooze if it weren’t for the production.
Somewhere around the time that Tribe started to lose its edge, another unit was forming. The Ummah, a production team consisting of Muhammad, Q-Tip, and Jay Dee, produced most of the abysmal fourth album, Beats, Rhymes, and Life. The Ummah sound of bubbling, low-end bass, choppy melodies, and wooden snares was not yet perfected by the time Tribe completed the Love Movement, and that record slumped. However, Tip and Jay Dee have finally found a working formula. (Muhammad, though still an Ummah member, is nowhere on this piece.) At least half of the tracks on Amplified are single material, deceptively simple, lighthearted, and thumping.
The beats bear out the record’s marketing strategy. “Vivrant Thing” was a party song complete with a video that showed a hunked-out Tip surrounded by gorgeous women in skimpy outfits. The next single is “Breathe and Stop.” Another danceable beat—and the video’s got even more babes. Stay tuned for a couple more follow-ups. The head-nod factor is so strong on cuts like “Let’s Ride” and “All In” that Q-Tip can just stand there with his shirt open, looking cute. He doesn’t have to say shit. Which is good, because he doesn’t.
When I first heard “Dead Wrong,” the single from the Notorious B.I.G.’s new, posthumously released album, Born Again, I was overjoyed just to hear the man’s voice again. Not to mention the fact that the sparse orchestra hits and Al Green drums underneath were perfect for Big’s aggressive delivery. After hearing it a couple more times (of course, it’s on WKYS and WPGC’s ultra-heavy rotation), I started to pay attention to the lyrics:
Smell the Indonesia, beat you to a seizure,
Then fuck your moms, hit the skins to amnesia.
She don’t remember shit, just the two hits:
Her hittin’ the floor and me hittin’ the clits.
Sucking on the tits, had the hooker begging for the dick.
And your moms ain’t ugly, love, my dick got rock quick.
Later on, there’s some stuff about oral sex with “little sis,” stabbing the brother with an ice pick, and fucking Dad with a broom. The song finishes up with Eminem being equally brutal and characteristically offensive. From the youthful sound of his voice, it is clear that Biggie’s lines are fairly old, probably recorded in between his first and second albums.
Biggie was a gangsta rapper. He told violent, misogynistic stories throughout his career. But the fact that these fantasies became reality when he died in a violent way renders his make-believe verses much more grave and disturbing. We would hope that Biggie Smalls, the reckless, drug-dealing, bitch-smacking gunslinger, is not the role Christopher Wallace would have continued to play for the rest of his adult life. Nevertheless, Born Again not only immortalizes, but also glorifies him as such. If this is how executive producer Puff Daddy and Bad Boy Records see B.I.G. born again, it might have been better that he be left to rest in peace.
Puff, the Junior M.A.F.I.A., and other guests chime in on Born Again, pledging their undying love for and allegiance to Big Poppa. But their salutes sound truly trivial and hollow. On “Would You Die for Me,” Lil’ Kim waxes romantic about her relationship with Big in a way that is nothing short of stomach-turning: “If I fuck another nigger, don’t mean nothin’/B.I.G. is in my heart from the start,” she rhymes. “Whether broke or rich, I’m a stay his bitch/Chicks who used to be around, where they at now?” And on “Biggie,” Lil’ Cease vows that he would die for a man who is already dead. The sentiment “For the love of Big we bang out/Since my man died, we don’t hang out/We blow brains out” seems less like an ode to a friend than a tribute to the “trife life” that killed him.
The album is typical of the previous Puffy-constructed B.I.G. efforts. There are tracks from various producers including a genuine hiphop banger courtesy of DJ Premier. As usual, there are a couple of one-loop blunders like the second single “Notorious B.I.G.” and the Too $hort-stained “Big Booty Hoes.” The production is average—not insulting, but hardly innovative. The tracks sound as if they were built around the cameo appearances.
“Hope You Niggas Sleep” was produced by Manny Fresh for Cash Money Records and features cajun crew-du-jour the Hot Boys. Naturally, it’s a Southern bounce track. Sadat X lends his underground credibility to “Come On,” a streetworthy Clark Kent cut. Method Man and Redman team up with Big on Premier’s “Rap Phenomenon.” Throughout the collection, you can’t tell whether the songs were recorded as is or assembled from spare verses after Big’s death. Big and Sadat mention each other’s names in their rhymes; on the song with Too $hort, Big continuously refers to “Luke,” as if the song were originally cut with the former 2 Live Crew member.
Puffy, thank goodness, appears only twice, talking a bunch of materialistic trash—surprise! Still, he slaps his name as co-producer on a half-dozen songs as “P. Diddy.” On “Tonight,” featuring Mobb Deep and its special brand of nihilism, you can hear P. Diddy’s distorted voice screaming, “Yeah, motherfuckers!” His ragged, exaggerated rants of “I always thought you would be by my side” and “Oh God, I miss you” have a disingenuous ring to them.
By far, the most meaningful guest appearance on Born Again is by Biggie’s mom, Voletta Wallace. In her slight Caribbean accent, she effectively negates every effort behind putting out this record. “If I had to change anything in my son’s life that would have allowed him to be here today,” she laments, “I would have deterred him from a career in music.” CP