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The Boston Phoenix Master Sessions

Q-Tip and Rakim

By Alex Pappademas

DECEMBER 20, 1999:  Dunno how Rakim's second solo album managed to drop without anybody noticing. Given the Superman-reborn-style welcome-back that greeted 1997's 18th Letter/The Book of Life (Universal), the barely-a-blip response to the new The Master (Universal) is a puzzler. The King of Cartoons got more fanfare at the door of Pee-wee's Playhouse back in the day.

Unlike 18th Letter, a career rebuilder that used words like "back" as often as X-Clan used to say "black" and second-guessed itself by coming strapped with a disc of Rakim's old hits with Eric B, The Master presents a Rakim for the way we live now: off hiatus and up in the clubs. These days, he'd rather chill while the ladies call him "Papi" than travel at magnificent speeds around the universe, but he won't hesitate to punk you with his Papermate if you test him. The expected gripes apply: not enough tracks with DJ Premier beats, the promised Lauryn Hill collaboration is MIA, and I still miss Eric B's blistering backdrops. But Rakim's deadpan remains rich and authoritative even when he's echoing daily flossers like Nas and Jay-Z.

"When I B on tha Mic" devotes a whole verse to the DJs who "play hits with hard bass kicks/Then they display tricks like The Matrix." That flick was hip-hop's favorite reference point this year -- the idea of underdogs in cool-ass trenchcoats battling techno-totalitarian Secret Service types resonated with a score of Y2K-ready rappers. Meanwhile turntablists grooved on all the martial-arts moves that froze time. But Rakim also does "tricks like The Matrix"; his delivery is measured, almost conversational, but he understands rhythm better than any other rapper, and sometimes it's as if he were able to stop the clock and move inside the structure of a beat, mining its pockets with kinetic internal rhymes. Like a fusion of Charles Mingus and Charles Atlas, Rakim exemplifies human potential unlocked through music, and he sounds like a conquering hero even when he comes home smelling like cognac.

Everybody who'd prefer to hear him rock endless grace notes on "Lyrics of Fury" probably won't know what to do with Q-Tip's first solo album, Amplified (Arista), on which A Tribe Called Quest's erstwhile "Abstract Poet" reveals he's been doing callout research in our nation's nightclubs and/or taking jiggy pills. Producers Jay Dee of Slum Village and Busta Rhymes point man DJ Scratch configure Premier's right angles to Flipmode shuffle funk and -- minus the occasional jaunty electric guitar -- omit anything you could describe as "jazzy." The first sound you hear could be the busy signal of a sampler downloading new programs, the first line is Tip saying "We on a new page," and so far both the videos (for "Vivrant Thing" and "Breathe and Stop") have been so mesmerized by shaking fem booty that MTV's Ananda Lewis (of all people) bugged Tip about it on Total Request Live. Your older brother's Q-Tip this is not.

Q-Tip has been in Interview and on Paper's "Cultural Sushi" page more than he's been in the Source since Tribe's break-up, and on one level this album, both designed for and set mostly in cars or discos, feels like a mack-about-town solidifying his party-person status. But coming from Q-Tip, Amplified's radio-primed singles, giggly hooks, and videos dedicated to the art of moving butts signal something more than a desire to get crazy paid. A black artist with a predominantly white fan base, part of the first non-gangsta/non-metal-connected rap outfit to headline a Lollapalooza, Tip is an artist whose work doesn't reach a black audience the way it used to: making a decisively un-boho record about what Biggie Smalls once termed "party and bullshit" is a way of struggling -- as Mos Def and the Roots both did on their '99 albums -- for a kind of crossover in reverse.

That said, Q-Tip's pop moves could be meatier: "Let's Ride" is about riding around rolling blunts with a girlfriend, and though there's a good goof on hip-hop car craziness right up front ("Brand new truck, butta-soft seat, four-point somethin' with a low-ride somethin',") and a rundown of who's in Tip's changer ("Mos Def, Jay[-Z], Prince, and Stevie/Marvin Gaye, Led Zeppelin, and Biggie"), just imagine how much information a detail freak like Raekwon could have packed into the moment. Not that Tip's being a freelance bubblehead is anything new: he's always gotten by mostly on charm and wit, on the cleverness of his word choice but not the vividness of his observations. Anyway, as he noted way back on "Verses from the Abstract," "brothas dig the lyrics" but "women love the voice." More jazzed on sex than on his own skills, he murmurs these goofy somethin'-somethin's in the ladies' ears, hopin' that they like rap songs.

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