This decade, many a rap and R&B artist, from Missy Elliott to Mya, have seen their albums stalled or put on permanent hold. But Q-Tip’s Kamaal/The Abstract has the dubious distinction of being one of the most delayed hip-hop records in the history of rap, nearly done under by seven long years of corporate hemming and hawing.
The story of Kamaal/The Abstract is an epic battle of creative artistic control against an increasingly homogenized and claustrophobic mainstream market.
The album, which was released last month, was originally scheduled to hit the streets in early 2002 as the follow-up to Q-Tip’s first solo, and highly controversial, album, Amplified (Arista, 1999). With Kamaal/The Abstract, there was much at stake. Longtime fans felt that for his solo debut, Q-Tip had abandoned the thoughtful verses he waxed with A Tribe Called Quest, for a decidedly more glamorous, blinged-out approach. Kamaal/The Abstract was to be Q-Tip’s return to grace
Kamaal/The Abstract was a move to show both Q-Tip returning to the more experimental approach of Tribe as well as delving deeper into the group’s jazz aesthetic, an aesthetic that made ’90s discs such as The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders enduring classics for both hip-hop and jazz heads. On Kamaal/The Abstract, Q-Tip recruited the heavyweight talents of saxophonist/flutist Gary Thomas, alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, giving them plenty of room to shine. And instead of balancing the jazz equation with high-profile, hip-hop guest artists, he explored more conventional instrumentation and many times opted to sing rather than rap.
While pre-release media coverage was mixed, the underground buzz about the record generated a lot of excitement in the music world. Unfortunately, that exhilaration didn’t touch the powers that be at Arista Records, who initially kept postponing the release date. And then label execs put Kamaal on ice, arguing that it didn’t have a single hit on it.
After that, Q-Tip’s career floated, in limbo; another disc, Open (Hollywood) also stalled. It wasn’t until he pulled a Rocky Balboa last year with The Renaissance (Motown Records), that his recording career landed back on solid ground. So the thawing and release of Kamaal/The Abstract is a long time coming.
It must have been incredibly frustrating for Q-Tip to watch Kamaal/The Abstract held back while other risk-taking albums recorded later—Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (ironically also on Arista), Common’s Electric Circus, Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere and Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak—became critical and commercial successes. With Kamaal/The Abstract, Q-Tip proved himself to be prescient in challenging the status quo of what a hip-hop artist could do.
Given Q-Tip’s status as one of hip-hop’s most imitable rappers from one of hip-hop’s most distinguished groups, A Tribe Called Quest, holding up the release of Kamaal/The Abstract seemed all the more absurd—insulting, even. As part of the Native Tongue Collective, (De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, Black Sheep, among others) A Tribe Called Quest helped elevate the game of hip-hop with its sonic ingenuity and sometimes sociopolitical themes that were at once playful and thought-provoking. Between 1990 and 1993, the group maintained a near peerless track record, releasing the magnificent trilogy—People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders—that came to epitomize the golden era of hip-hop.
And while latter discs—Beats, Rhythms & Life and The Love Movement—saw the group’s magic beginning to wane, those discs helped introduce the phenomenal J Dilla and provided much inspiration for other hip-hop renaissance figures such as Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Common and The Roots. With the Soulaquarian movement of the early 2000s, other kindred spirits such as D’Angelo, Roy Hargrove, Raphael Saadiq, Jill Scott and Bilal pushed intelligent hip-hop and R&B into the new century. Kamaal/The Abstract should have been a no-brainer.
But as some people say, “better late than never.” Still, a lingering question remained with the official release of Kamaal/The Abstract, which was “Is it still as groundbreaking and more importantly “good to the ears” as was seven years ago?” The answer: Yes.
Those who savored the guitar-driven “Johnny Is Dead” or the gentle piano melody that underscores “Gettin’ Up” from Q-Tip’s Renaissance will love Kamaal/The Abstract joints like the opening “Feelin’” and the ruminative “Even It Is So”—both songs almost sounding like rough drafts of the earlier tunes. The more serious-minded jazz hip-hop heads will enjoy Garrett’s scalding alto saxophone improvisation on “Abstractionisms” and Thomas’ extended—some would argue, perhaps too extended—flute solo on the Jamie Starr-era Prince cut, “Do U Dig U?”
Q-Tip’s forays into singing prove that he’s a better rapper than he is a crooner. Still, the gentle “Blue Girl,” the peppy “Barely in Love” and the Cameo-influenced “Heels” exude undeniable charm and lyrical wit.
So no, there are no ready-made club-bangers on Kamaal/The Abstract. But that seems beside the point of Q-Tip’s original artistic goal, which was to throw caution to the wind, make a personal artistic statement and expand his creative reach. And with that in mind, KamaalThe Abstract achieved all those high marks.
John Murph is a regular contributor to The Root.