THE TANK-LIKE Mercedes SUV rumbled into Times Square one evening in late spring with all the subtlety of a space shuttle launch. It wasn't simply the boom-bip issuing at ear-splitting volume from the truck's bazooka speakers -- although the sound of kick drums that loud was enough to get passersby wondering, even complaining, about the person behind the wheel. You could see something else happening: hip-hop fans of all stripes having a "Hey, isn't that . . . ?" moment, connecting the music coming from the vehicle with its driver, New York "conscious" rapper Q-Tip.
The on-again-off-again front man-producer for seminal hip-hop quartet A Tribe Called Quest and one of the genre's most transcendent MCs, Q-Tip largely has kept to himself since 1999, when his last album, "Amplified," hit No. 4 on the national hip-hop/R&B; chart. Outside of a scant few guest verses on other performers' songs (including the Chemical Brothers' European smash hit "Galvanize," for which Q-Tip won a Grammy) and dribs of production work for the likes of Stevie Wonder, Mariah Carey and Mobb Deep, he's remained virtually silent. Rap aficionados, meanwhile, never forgot him.
Bathed in Times Square's neon glow, the Queens native nodded coolly in time with "Shaka," the first track on his eagerly awaited second solo album; a song on which the voice of Barack Obama soars over a crushing beat, intoning his message of hope and change -- a sound byte Q-Tip excerpted from one of the candidate's campaign speeches.
"I feel like Obama in a way," the rapper would say later. "His idea that hope means not shrinking from a fight; it's the courage to reach for something. My music is that. Those are principles I try to embody. He said it so eloquently, I thought it would be a proper way to start things off."
Appropriately enough, Q-Tip's first commercially released album in nine years is titled "The Renaissance," signaling both a reclamation of the spotlight and a rebirth of the hip-hop cool he helped create. But don't call it a comeback. To hear him tell it, he never really went away. He simply recorded several albums' worth of music without releasing it, waiting for the right cultural tipping point to reemerge on the scene. "Where have I been?" Q-Tip asked. "Working. Between you and me, I was waiting for the time to be right."
Just weeks in front of A Tribe Called Quest reuniting to perform 10 dates on the nation's top-grossing hip-hop event, the Rock the Bells tour (which hits the Glen Helen Pavilion on Aug. 9), the rapper-producer allowed a visiting reporter to preview the album while riding shotgun on an SUV crawl around Manhattan.
The verdict: "The Renaissance" marks a return to form that rivals Q-Tip's best work on Tribe's beloved 1993 album, "Midnight Marauders." Featuring multi-platinum-selling singer Norah Jones (on her first hip-hop "collabo"), as well as neo-soul crooners D'Angelo and Raphael Saadiq, "The Renaissance" blends live instrumentation and samples. It encompasses summer jams and club bangers as well as introspective songs such as "We Fight, We Love" (contrasting the experiences of a young girl in a bad relationship with a young man fighting in Iraq) and succeeds -- despite an overwhelming burden of expectation -- as one of the most artistically whole CDs of the late '00s.
Moreover, "The Renaissance" sounds thoroughly modern for the simple fact that so many other artists are just now aping what Q-Tip did 20 years ago.
Discussing the professional odyssey leading to its September release on Universal Motown -- he changed record labels five times in six years, bouncing among every major hip-hop imprint except Island Def Jam, and took an acting role in the 2007 thriller "The Invasion" -- Q-Tip, 38, sounded less like a world-weary casualty of the industry's hustle and flow than a kind of hip-hop J.D. Salinger who has come out of years in the wilderness with his optimism guarded yet intact.
"Since 'Amplified,' I've recorded three albums. I shot a movie with Nicole Kidman that I got cut out of -- it was crap anyways. But I am totally happy with where I'm at artistically," Q-Tip said over an extravagant omakase sushi supper on the Upper West Side. "One thing the music industry has taught me is to manage my expectations. I'm looking forward to moving forward. I've got so many ideas. I see things very clearly."
AT A moment when "bringing '88 back" has become something of a rallying cry in hip-hop -- a nod to rap's so-called golden era that lasted from 1988 to '94 -- A Tribe Called Quest's cultural legacy (and in particular Q-Tip's hand in it) has been thrown into stark relief. Tribe's 1990 single "Can I Kick It" enjoys prominent placement in the new coming-of-age comedy "The Wackness." Chicago rap duo Kidz in the Hall reverently name-check Tribe's classic 1991 album, "The Low End Theory," on its song "Drivin' Down the Block (Low End Theory)." And many of today's most forward-looking hip-hop tastemakers -- Kanye West, the Cool Kids, Lupe Fiasco, the Roots, N.E.R.D., Common, the Knux and Andre 3000 of OutKast among them -- owe a debt to the sonic template Q-Tip innovated.
Ask any hip-hop head and they'll tell you: Lyrically, "the Abstract" (as Tip calls himself) helped redefine the genre. The most forward face of the Native Tongues' hip-hop collective -- a massive that also included De La Soul, the Black Sheep and the Jungle Brothers -- he shifted emphasis away from gangsta nihilism toward the light of Afro-centrism, self-love and a unified hip-hop culture. As a producer, Q-Tip (his given name is Jonathan Davis, but he changed it to Kamaal Fareed after converting to Islam in the mid-'90s) helped broaden hip-hop's sonic horizons by incorporating jazz samples with swing beats like no producer before him.
"Tip is a master," said producer Pharrell Williams, one of hip-hop's most successful and prolific hitmakers. "His way of looking at sampling was unique to everybody else's. He would take the sweetest spot of a record, usually a bridge while everyone else was taking the break [beat], and make a song around it. I don't call him Q-Tip. I call him 'teacher.' He's one of the guys that raised me as a musician."
The genre-splicing indie/hip-hop/new wave/rock singer-songwriter Santogold went a step further, calling Q-Tip a "musical legend." "He is intrinsically connected to music and uses it as a way to explore himself," Santogold said. "Music is his life force. He's a true artist in that way."
Yet it wasn't that long ago that his career seemed to be stuck in quicksand. After a 10-year run together, A Tribe Called Quest's members (MC Phife Dawg, DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Q-Tip and the group's rotating member and "hype man" Jarobi) went their separate ways in 1998 -- leaving a void in hip-hop for which a contingency of the group's fans have mostly blamed the Abstract.
"For people who love Tribe, I'm the defector," Q-Tip said between gulps of premium sake. "They say, 'You should get back with Ali to do the beats.' But a lot of people don't realize I did all the music in Tribe. In the first three albums, I did all the beats!"
Nonetheless he tasted early solo success, signing with Clive Davis' Arista Records to release the party-minded "Amplified" (best remembered for its effervescent lead single "Vivrant Thing"). But when Davis was ousted as label chief in 2000, around the time Q-Tip was working on his second album, "Kamaal the Abstract," the rapper-producer made the first of a series of wrong career turns.
"Clive asked me to come with him to J Records," Q-Tip recalled. "But I stayed with L.A. Reid at Arista and finished the album. He loved it, sent it out, it got great reviews. But he got cold feet because he didn't hear a single. So I asked for a release."
Rather than put the CD out on an independent label, Q-Tip decided to sit on it; the album achieved cult status after it was widely bootlegged. From there, the rapper-producer signed a deal with DreamWorks Records only to see the imprint absorbed by Geffen Records just months later. He never stopped creatively striving, studying piano, taking tutorials in bel canto singing technique and performing DJ sets throughout New York. After a year of neglect on the Geffen affiliate Interscope, Q-Tip asked for and was granted another release.
In 2004, he inked a contract with Universal Motown and self-produced another solo album, "Open." Its spacey avant jazz grooves and psychedelic guitars (not to mention the vocal contributions on two songs from Andre 3000) won critical raves but failed to live up to Q-Tip's sky-high standards. And again, "Open" never saw the light of commercial day.
Sylvia Rhone, president of Universal Motown, oversaw that CD's slow metamorphosis from a dark, jazzy exercise in intellectual hip-hop into the accessible, sparkling pop of "The Renaissance" after a series of creative detours.
"He had failure to launch, that's what it was," Rhone said. "Over the four years, trust me, he's been working on this. It's been a constant work in progress. The tone has changed so much. But I think we have something that's going to go down in the record books."
The time is right
PILOTING HIS SUV through midtown Manhattan's glittering night scape, the rapper-producer appeared quiet and a tad sentimental. He pointed out the theater that functioned as Studio 54 in the '70s and signaled toward where the seminal New York night spot Latin Quarter used to be, the place where a young MC from Queens (Q-Tip: Get it?) established his rap bona fides.
Soon, however, conversation turned away from hip-hop's past and toward his future output -- specifically why the time is right now for him to release "The Renaissance."
"At one point, it didn't seem like it was going to come out because there were a lot of hurdles I had to go through," he said. "I knew it would come out. I had to wait until the time was right. If I put it out a couple of years ago, it wouldn't have been right. But now you have people like Santogold, Kanye West, Lupe [Fiasco], Common. It seems like it's a bit more in tune with what I'm doing. I think that in the next six years I can keep putting albums out. I feel like the environment's right. So I'm going to take advantage of where the culture's at."
He explained that the plan, as it stands, is to finally release "Kamaal the Abstract" around Christmas this year, then, in January, to head into the studio with British studio whiz Nigel Godrich, the producer behind Radiohead's "OK Computer" and Beck's "Sea Change," to cut a new album. "He's really dope," Q-Tip said.
Around 2 a.m. that night, Q-Tip was doing what he does best. In a subterranean club in the Meatpacking District called APT, he had given his friend, DJ Rich Medina, several tracks from "The Renaissance" to preview. When the percolating beat of "Life Is Better" (featuring Norah Jones) came over the speakers, the rapper slipped into a fugue of disco bliss; dancing and rapping along with his own voice.
Blame either the sake or the impending release of his first new album in nearly a decade, Q-Tip's energy suddenly seemed both boundless and contagious. By the time everyone figured out who was behind the song, the packed house was already rocking, waving arms and shaking hips. Women leaned in to kiss Q-Tip's cheek and men pounded him on the shoulder heartily. "I'm the renaissance man, the Rose King," Q-Tip said, smiling, tipsy.
He seemed relieved. The Abstract had been waiting for this moment.