Friday, January 23, 2009

Jazz's Renaissance Through Rap?

It's not a jazz album. But so what? I've reviewed Girl Talk here before, and I didn't even bother with an excuse beyond the fact that it was one of the best albums of the year- why can't I write a review of one of the best rap albums of the year? Plus- and don't take this the wrong way, "The Renaissance" is a rap record, not one of the Jazz-with-a-capital-"J" variety- there are more brilliant young jazz musicians in one place here than you will find on many new jazz albums. The luminaries include keyboardist Robert Glasper, bassist Derrick Hodge, guitarist Mike Moreno, and another guitarist- perhaps you've heard of him- Kurt "Most Influential Jazz Guitar Player of His Generation" Rosenwinkel. If that name alone isn't enough to excuse me for writing about rap in this setting, what is?

There is no improvisation on "The Renaissance," and the musicians who are featured (mostly as parts of various live bands in the studio, believe it or not) are called upon to do nothing but groove. This is a good thing. Anyone who's listened to Glasper's "In My Element" or Rosenwinkel's latest, "The Remedy," know that these guys can groove better than anyone out there. The one track built off of samples, "Move," is the album's most ambitious track and one of its highlights. The beat, created by the late, great J Dilla, fits right in with the rest of the album, and if it weren't for Dilla's trademarked audible vinyl hiss, you wouldn't be able to tell that it was anything other than another live funky groove. Other highlights include "Life Is Better," which is perhaps the best piece of music that Norah Jones has ever attached her name to (she sings the hook), and the D'Angelo guest spot, "Believe."

Q-Tip's rapping is just as spot on as when he most recently released an album all the way back in 1999. "The Renaissance" is even better than "Amplified," though, which suffered from too much production. For the most part, as opposed to dissing other rappers (with the exception of the a capella beginning of "Dance on Glass"), Q-Tip is content to rap about history: "Life Is Better" consists almost entirely of shout-outs to all of his favorite MCs from Kool Herc to Lil Wayne.

As in 2007, the best rap record of 2008 was a battle-cry from an MC long off the scene; granted, Q-Tip is not quite the lyricist that Pharoahe Monch is, and "The Renaissance" doesn't have the same number of immediately quotable genius one-liners that can be found in "Desire" ("Think! Even you was ashes you couldn't urn," "I lay in the cut like neosporin," and about fifty others), but what "The Renaissance" lacks in immediate lyrical nastiness it more than makes up for in groove. The best moment on the record occurs near the beginning of "Believe," when the full band drops out with the exception of the bass and drums to allow Q-Tip to begin his rap like a percussive accompaniment: "Of the things we believe/there's a whole lot of work/ gotta roll up our sleeves." Who knows when Q-Tip will come out with another new record, but now that he's finally rolled his sleeves up he's come up with his best solo album, and one of the best albums of the year.

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