On "Amplified," Q-Tip has taken a ghetto fabulous turn that will likely alienate some fans of his old band, the progressive hip-hop act A Tribe Called Quest. Like De La Soul and, later, the Fugees and the Black Eyed Peas, A Tribe Called Quest's unceasing positivity was simultaneously appealing to serious hip-hop fans and unthreatening to middle-class white people (though, of course, these groups are not mutually exclusive). But most hardcore rap fans, both black and white, largely prefer dirtier, rougher rhymes than what Tribe produced. And with that in mind, "Amplified" sounds like Q-Tip's attempt to shore up his street cred.
Here the jaunty, goofy rapper who left his wallet in El Segundo on Tribe's debut "People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm" (1990) has been replaced by an aggressive MC throwing around the word "nigger" and barking R-rated rhymes. "Amplified's" beats are largely harsh and decentered, very much like Timbaland's skittering, uneasy soundscapes on Missy Elliott's "Da Real World." Q-Tip's collaborators have gotten meaner, too. Instead of the tightly knit warmth that Tribe projected, "Amplified" features rough vocal assaults by Busta Rhymes (who shouts, "Some of these rap niggas is bitch") and irritating rap-rockers Korn.
But if Q-Tip's message on "Amplified" is fundamentally different from that of Tribe albums like "The Low End Theory" and "Midnight Marauders," his mesmerizing flow and talent for fusing jazz and hip-hop hasn't changed a bit. Though harder than his past work, the album is packed with the layered jazz loops that made Tribe unique, and updated for 1999 with a metallic, stuttering percussion. The addictive opening track "Wait Up" begins with a mechanized pulse, but it's quickly overtaken by a delicious, buoyant piano loop. Alternating in prominence throughout the track, the song's contrasting elements seem like sonic shorthand for the tension between lush '70s grooves and hard '00 machismo that animates "Amplified."
On the best tracks, songs like "Moving With U" and "Let's Ride," Q-Tip uses that conflict to create a fascinating futuristic funk, one that replaces Tribe's boyish insouciance with raw adult sexuality. Still, there's a dispiriting element of brutality in this new stance -- the hollow, throbbing beats and female moans on "Go Hard" feel as impersonally carnal as a quick screw in a nightclub bathroom, and are a depressing contrast to the sweetness of Tribe tracks like "Bonita Applebum."
Like the latest albums from Missy Elliott and Kool Keith, "Amplified" seems purposefully futuristic, and it equates the future with a sound that's more grinding than soulful. The dystopian "End of Time," for example, has a squelching bass that recalls hardcore jungle, punctuated by Korn's shrill electric guitars and melodramatic Freddie Mercury-inspired singing. If the future is imagined as a fierce industrial wasteland, than Q-Tip succeeds in bringing his hypnotically rhythmic jazz collages up to date.
Still, "Amplified's" most resonant song is oddly its hidden track, the nostalgic "Do It, Be It, See It." It's a poignant song about the rise and breakup of Tribe, and it has much of that group's casual radiance and luscious soul. It's the one moment on "Amplified" where Q-Tip really seems to open up and allow the listener to relate to him rather than putting on a hard-ass front. Looking back to a New York childhood spent practicing rhymes in the bathroom and worshipping Run-DMC, Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh, Q-Tip recalls the giddiness of his band's early days, giving his voice a richness absent elsewhere on the album. It's all very well for an artist to evolve and bring his sound into the future, but that's no reason to leave behind a beautiful history.