"Industry rule #4080: Record company people are shady." --A Tribe Called Quest, "Check the Rhime"
Q-Tip has always tried to stay posi, but that doesn't mean he's anybody's fool. Even before career-halting delays on releases became a given in major label rap, Tip was devoting Tribe tracks to calling out the "snakes and fakes," interposing their slimy selves between artist and fans. Kamaal the Abstract, which was originally scheduled as the follow-up to the club-friendly Amplified, was kept off the shelf by shadies for seven years until Tip bought it back from Arista and had it distributed through Jive's Battery Records imprint.
Maybe Kamaal Fareed (as Q-Tip refers to himself in the liner notes) could have used a refresher course on ye old industry bible, though. For instance, the rule prohibiting extended flute solos on hip-hop records? Or the one banning any display of lime green drapes on the cover? Both flagrantly disregarded. The strict mandates for high-profile guest MCs and overlong playing times? Brazenly unheeded. To play devil's advocate, maybe the management at Arista felt what Q-Tip's most discerning fans know: that his MC gifts are most prominent when he focuses on the countours of an ample derriere rather than the more nebulous contours of the human (neo-)soul. The faux-candid photos of "Kamaal" on the sleeve really are phony as hell. And the marketing advantages of his new Muslim-centric persona were not great in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
Of course, record company people aren't the devil; they're just opportunistic Philistines. A few listens to Kamaal the Abstract bares this ancient truism out for the billionth time. How could you hear this honest and assured record, from one of the most respected artists in the game, and make the decision to keep it under vault and lock? As the artist himself has noted, Kamaal is way less radical than stuff Outkast or Miss Badu subsequently got away with. In many ways, Kamaal is the "real" Q-Tip, the midnight marauder and low-end theorist finally working in the space evoked by the jazz beats from his most classic records. If he sounds a bit subdued, it's only because he's right in his comfort zone.
The record begins with a rock chord, the only one on the record, and then our abstract poet is stepping to a spry beat, on his way to the studio. The "profilin cop" who stops him on his way there is just another mundane and too-predictable distraction in a world full of them. Kamaal is an album about sidestepping the cop and avoiding pettiness; the man is determined to overcome, any way he can. If that means letting the music speak for itself, then Tip doesn't rap. If the song is over but he has more to say, then he starts the song up again, as in "Blue Girl," where his frustration with the wounded heroine boils over past the false finish: "Takin' your secrets to the grave/ Little girl, it's you I can't save." The loose playing is complemented by the raw production (by Kamaal/Q-Tip), and the whole freewheelin affair is suffused with the personality of its maker even when his presence is not immediately apparent.
However, Kamaal's perch on the rocks of transcendence and soft experimentalism proves precarious, and it falls once or twice. Album-ending "Make it Work" is basically just "The Night is on my Mind" from Midnight Marauders with live keyboard and guitar and a final up-with-people sentiment (they "gonna make it work") that feels obligatory. Most egregious is "Barely in Love," where this egg is laid during the hushed middle eight: "When you really think about it/ Love is truly powerful/ The undeniable force which makes it magnetic," continuing in that abysmal vein until some overzealous clapping drowns him out. I'll just hope it ended in a big punchline.
These complaints are of course not completely unique to Kamaal. Awkward mawkishness is the flipside to Q-Tip's articulate compassion, and to be honest I can't think of a single truly "abstract" verse in his repertoire. Take this famous run from Midnight Marauders: "I am recognizing that the voices in my head/ Are urging me to be myself and never follow someone else/ Because opinions are like voices we all have a different kind." As poetry, it's on about the same level as the "message" tee shirts they sell at Kohl's. As a musical moment, set over rhythmic scratch, it is unforgettable. If we measure Q-Tip's success at "abstractionism" in terms of how his voice, message, and golden ear complement each other to bring out hip-hop's full musical potential, then Kamaal is a clear success on the artist's own terms.
2. Do U Dig U?
3. A Million Times
4. Blue Girl
5. Barely in Love
9. Even if it is SO
10. Make it Work (Bonus Track)