Q-Tip’s previously-shelved, finally-released second album proves an undiscovered gem.
Stevie Chick 2009
That Q-Tip spent his own money to purchase the rights to this previously-shelved album suggests how close it is to his heart. That it took the name he chose when converting to Islam in the mid-90s, Kamaal, as its title suggested that this follow-up to the rapper’s smash debut, 1999’s Amplified, would be a more personal work.
Recorded in 2001 with the late J Dilla, who had produced both Amplified and work by Q-Tip’s old group, A Tribe Called Quest, Kamaal the Abstract saw its makers collaborating with studio musicians, including jazz legends Kenny Garrett, Gary Thomas and Kirk Rosenwinkel – instead of lifting grooves from dusty vinyl, Dilla and Q-Tip cut their own. It features more singing than rapping, blurring the lines between hip hop and soul, and funk and jazz, coining an amorphous amalgam all of its own.
Q-Tip’s label responded by refusing to release the album, which they deemed to be “un-commercial”. But this is no unlistenable ego-indulgence, no failed folly: on the contrary, it’s among Q-Tip’s strongest records, and is easily his bravest. It’s loose, and some of the tracks run past the five-minute mark, the musicians enjoying the groove, allowing it to unfurl – like on Do You Dig You, a sparse and summery seven minutes of Rhodes funk, lilting harmonies and bristling flute.
Throughout, Q-Tip’s songwriting chops impress: the handclap-driven soul/rock of Barely in Love evokes the Isley Brothers in their 70s prime, while the melancholic Caring sounds like it slipped off an old Minnie Riperton LP. Most striking, though, are Q-Tip’s vocals: while he raps with the sing-song flow he cultivated with A Tribe Called Quest, he boldly breaks into wonderfully-wounded Marvin Gaye-esque howls and tender croons, these moments delivering many of the album’s goose-flesh moments.
Un-commercial only by the standards of the clearly airplay-orientated Amplified, this complex and nuanced album is comparable with similarly idiosyncratic LPs released by Erykah Badu, Common, D’Angelo and The Roots during its era – kindred spirits and, like Q-Tip and J Dilla, members of loose musical collective The Soulquarians, operating in an orbit of their own between hip hop and neo-soul. Certainly, the success of OutKast’s similarly pigeonhole-adverse Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in 2003 suggests Kamaal’s ambitions could have easily been rewarded, had the label shared Q-Tip’s confidence in his audience.
But you can hear it now, and you really should.