The Wu footsoldiers are massing. Biggie and Tupac are being disinterred for one more turn at the mic. Rap’s big guns, friends of big guns and, frequently, victims of big guns always seem to turn up around Christmas time, as the street-savvy corporations of America begin their annual scramble to bombard the market with an embarrassing surfeit of hip-hop.
Understandably, it’s often easy to miss the gems amid the generic. At first, the solo debut by Q-Tip seems to follow the millennial hip-hop formula to the point of near anonymity: the clipped staccato sub-Missy & Timbaland beats of first single ‘Breathe And Stop’; the booty-shaking-in-a-fish-eye formula of ubiquitous Hype Williams’ attendant video; the completely inevitable walk-on part for Busta Rhymes, fit to drop after blustering his way through guest spots on [I]every single[/I] rap album of the past year or so.
Stick with it, though. ‘Amplified’ is an album that rapidly lives up to Q-Tip‘s illustrious pedigree as chief rapper in New York trailblazers A Tribe Called Quest. Here, Q and production partner Jay Dee take the tricks patented by his old band – looped jazz snippets, low-end minimalism – and update them with the kind of super-sharp, digital edginess that’s essential for a successful hip-hop album right now.
The result is a quite brilliant hybrid of the organic and the modernist, so that ‘Amplified’ rolls along with a true funky effortlessness, like cyber R&B’s flipped-out beatnik cousin. Take ‘Let’s Ride’, in which Q-Tip unveils his new truck – a [I]”four-point something with a low-ride something”[/I], if you’re checking specs – and, over a hideously groovy guitar figure, gives the venerable driving/shagging metaphor one more strangely eloquent spin. It’s cheeky rather than macho, a stance reinforced by his nasal, helium-sucking raps that give the impression of a nippy cartoon character rather than the usual dour, repetitive gangsta shit.
So ‘NT’ pivots on some limber, bluesy piano and a beat that’s more suited to tap than breakdancing, with Q and Busta‘s radically contrasting styles – nimble versus splutter – jousting brilliantly over the top. There are a couple of fashion casualty tracks, too – the spry Latino flourishes of ‘Do It’ are fair enough, but ‘End Of Time’ is lumbering rap-metal tosh with Korn churning away and Jonathan Davis doing his panto goth spookee voice while the usually graceful Q-Tip goes wading through shit in the background.
It’s an unnecessary indignity, really, for ‘Amplified’ proves an old master can still be a vital force. And, at 45 minutes, there’s far less filler material than the usual bloated hip-hop guff. One worth rescuing from the hip-hop avalanche, for sure.