For all the talk of it as experimental, Kamaal the Abstract satisfies and soothes more than it challenges or questions.
The first song on Kamaal the Abstract is titled “Feelin’”. That seems about right. So much of what A Tribe Called Quest was up to in their 10-year career was trying to capture a feeling, a vibe. When they proclaimed “We got the jazz”, it wasn’t just about the music, but the feeling. Their whole approach to jazz had a lot to do with the cool attitude and live energy of jazz. During “Feelin’”, Q-Tip is actually decrying the lack of feeling. “What happened to that feelin’?”, is the chorus. Yet, even with the opening reference to racial profiling by police, the specifics of what’s been lost aren’t there. Any real sense of loss in the song is overpowered by the groove. And therein lies one major difference between Kamaal the Abstract and any A Tribe Called Quest album. They always excelled at mood and rhythm, but also wordplay and the viscera of everyday life. In contrast, Kamaal the Abstract is mainly about feeling. There’s no storytelling meat to the songs, less wit, not much of Q-Tip’s creative approach to language. It’s mostly about riding the groove, and that Q-Tip does well.
The groove is provided by a band of musicians, not samples. Q-Tip, aka Kamaal Fareed, joins in occasionally on mini moog, drum programming, bass, synthesizer, and hand claps, but mostly serves as bandleader and MC. The dominant jazz sound in hip-hop has generally been ‘70s jazz-soul fusion, and that’s mostly true here. More so than that, though, this music is hitting a Stevie Wonder-Prince funk-soul spot, and hitting it well, both on the up-tempo jams like the especially spunky “Barely in Love” and slower, moodier songs like the excellent “Blue Girl”. “Blue Girl” taps into the melancholy ‘blue’ feeling of jazz more than it tells a coherent story, but nevertheless it sparkles. “Even If It Is So” is another place where there’s clearly a story being told, but the story isn’t all that clear. In both cases, and every time this happens, it doesn’t matter because what we’re hearing sounds good, is satisfying. “Abstractionisms”, Q-Tip’s fastest rap, embodies the sweet nothing-ness of the album. The band and he are on fire, aggressive, and indulging in the sheer pleasures of sound.
“Abstractionims” and the album title reference Q-Tip’s common nickname, the Abstract (or the Abstract Poetic). Truth is, his rhymes were never too abstract, just unique. Here his rhymes are almost more abstract than usual, but in the sense of being indistinct. Other times he goes for the abstraction of Prince-style new age philosophizing, especially on “Do You Dig U?”, which boasts a series of classically meaningless Prince-isms. That’s one song where Q-Tip rolls out the sing-rap style that comes and goes on the album. On “Caring”, the album’s weakest track, he shifts to straight-up singing, but only as part of a trio of voices.
Q-Tip’s lean towards singing and use of a band are what marked this album as a shift in his career. Though you wouldn’t know it from the liner notes or the way the album’s being marketed as the new Q-Tip album, Kamaal the Abstract is a ‘lost’ album, Q-Tip’s would-be second solo LP after 1999’s Amplified. It was originally scheduled for release on April 23, 2002. Promotional copies had been mailed already when the record label, Arista, pulled the plug on it, apparently deciding it was too uncommercial. In 2009, Kamaal the Abstract doesn’t sound uncommercial. But I’m not convinced that it would have been anything but successful in 2002. It isn’t that big of a departure for Q-Tip, and doesn’t stand that far away from other music being made in 2002. This isn’t the first time a rapper’s worked with live instruments, and not the first time a rapper did a little singing.
Pitchfork’s claim that Kamaal the Abstract is a “heavily experimental mindf**k” is way off base, just as ridiculous as the critical claims that 2008’s lukewarm The Renaissance neared the heights set by A Tribe Called Quest. Kamaal the Abstract is refreshingly playful, a lot of fun, but not especially experimental. Hip-hop itself is experimental. A Tribe Called Quest at their best innovated more than anything here. Even Amplified, with its futuristic J Dilla beats and awkward Korn collaboration, had more of an edge than Kamaal the Abstract, which satisfies and soothes more than it challenges or questions.
That discrepancy says more about music critics’ struggles to credibly consider post-group-success solo work than it does about Q-Tip’s intentions or what Kamaal the Abstract accomplished. As an album, it’s a joy to listen to most of the way through. It’s more consistent than Amplified, though not as interesting overall, and both more consistent and more interesting than The Renaissance. It’s hard not to wonder how different Q-Tip’s career path would have been if this album had come out on schedule, and if it had been commercially successful. Instead, it set an unfortunate precedent: a series of failed record deals, unreleased recordings, and aborted attempts at A Tribe Called Quest reunion followed, until Q-Tip’s ‘comeback’ last year.