A Tribe Called Quest is taking baby steps towards reforming - doing a mini-tour of the East Coast in mid-October - but news of their would-be comeback album hasn't been confirmed solidly enough for fans to feel comfortable that it will definitely happen. In the meantime, the trio's members are up to their own things, not quite up the Tribe Called Quest standard: Q-Tip contributes an embarrassingly bad rhyme to R.E.M.'s new album, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad has released his first solo album Shaheedullah and Stereotypes. The album's mix of rap and R&B is in fact closer in tone to the music of Lucy Pearl, the "supergroup" that Muhammad was in with Raphael Sadiq and Dawn from En Vogue, than Tribe; yet it stands apart from both albums as a place where Muhammad steps out from behind the turntables to rap and sing, mostly over live instrumentation instead of samples. It's still a collaborative effort, with the bulk of the album's vocals coming from guests like rappers Chip (Fu-Schnickens) and Kay and singers Stokley Williams (Mint Condition), Sy Smith and Wallace Gary. Muhammad isn't about to do everything himself just yet, but the album still stands as a personal statement of independence.
Though the song topics vary from love to the music industry, overall Shaheedullah and Stereotypes is thematically a statement of spirituality, Muhammad's on-wax embracing of his Muslim faith in the wake of the 9/11 attacks (yes, they were three years ago, but this album's been sitting on a record label shelf somewhere for close to that long). The album begins with a chant or prayer titled "The Cow" before sliding into the smooth soul track "Lord Can I Have This Mercy", which is in part a wish for peace. Later in the album, Kay rhymes open-heartedly about what his family means to him ("Family") and Muhammad sings about how hate and anger come back to haunt you ("Matches Don't Play!!!"), but the most effectively spiritual tracks are the two where Muhammad has someone sing a simple chorus and then just rides it for a while. This is especially true of "Honey Child", where Sy Smith sings a fairly innocuous lover's hook ("Can you believe I'm your honey child?") which through repetition and gospel-chorus backing vocals lifts itself up until it becomes almost like a prayer.
Taking middle-of-the-road, rather 1990s-ish R&B songs and using them to deliver a message of community, hope, and uplift is Shaheedullah and Stereotypes' agenda, and it mostly succeeds at that without ever wowing or overwhelming. Part of the problem is that none of the musicians are show-stoppers. The guest stars are all decent but not spectacular. Kay and Sy Smith are the strongest, and most dominant voices; Smith adds spark and sweetness to the catchy night-clubbing song "Part of the Night", and Kay's rhyme on "Family" is a straight-from-the-heart moment that temporarily breaks the album from play-it-by-numbers mode. Yet they still don't make the songs all that remarkable, perhaps because the basic forms, sounds and styles feel so routine by now. And then there's Muhammad himself. His singing skills are passable; he has a high voice and sings in a quiet, low-key way, without pushing his range. But his rhyming skills, displayed on three tracks, fall somewhere between amateur and awful.
"Too concerned with ass and fashion/ Not too concerned when buildings burn," Muhammad complains about others in his rhyme on the song "Industry/Life". The sentiment is noble - calling out MCs too wrapped up in the surfaces - but the delivery is stilted and pedestrian, undercutting its effectiveness. That's the essence of Shaheedullah and Stereotypes. Good intentions abound, but the end result is too run-of-the-mill.