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Two Steps Backward

Willie Nelson and Q-Tip Attempt to Revisit Classics and End Up Half-Assed

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 2/20/2002

Slipping back into old habits should be, in theory, easy. Do something long enough--ride a bike, say, or make particular kinds of records--and there's no real reason you wouldn't be able to get back on it and do it again after an extended hiatus. Right?

Well, not exactly. Riding a bike is a solitary activity, but chances are the records you make are collaborative efforts (unless you're making art-techno in your bedroom, or you're Prince or Stevie Wonder). And even revisiting a comfortable style can be fraught with peril: You have to match your own earlier standards and not sound desperate doing it. (How many times has Keith Richards said that a new Rolling Stones album is their best since Exile on Main Street? How many times has he been right?)

On the surface, Willie Nelson and Q-Tip don't have much in common. But there are parallels. Both share a penchant for transmuting colloquial speech into cannily offhanded vocal styles, which is a far more difficult trick than it may seem. Both have new albums--Nelson's The Great Divide and Q-Tip's Kamaal the Abstract--that find them not simply repeating old formulas but taking them further, albeit in completely different ways. And both albums are completely misconceived--in Nelson's case because he sounds like he's being pushed against his own better instincts, in Q-Tip's because he follows his muse off the edge of the map.

The Great Divide is Nelson's most deliberately pop-friendly work since the albums he put out on Columbia in the 1980s, although it has a sense of brooding deliberateness that's miles away from those records' off-the-cuff feel. Divide is heavy on duets with and backing vocals from name guest stars, and the songs are mostly written by industry heavy hitters such as Matchbox Twenty's Rob Thomas and Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin. Yes, that was the formula behind Santana's Supernatural.

This strategy has become the template for all old-men-of-rock commercial revitalization attempts. But for every Supernatural blockbuster there's a Mick Jagger Goddess in the Doorway languishing on a record-store shelf where it awaits its inevitable trip to the cutout bin. The Great Divide is, if anything, a more frustrating album than Jagger's, if only because no one expected Mick to start making good records again two decades after he'd given up that ghost. Nelson, on the other hand, has been on a roll since 1993's Across the Borderline, and it's frustrating to hear him squeezed into such an ill-fitting template. By definition, hearing him waste his time with crap such as "Last Stand in Open Country" (with Kid Rock, who sounds like a blow-hard pretending at sincerity, and not too convincingly either) and "Don't Fade Away" (with oversincere ninny Brian McKnight emoting into the fade-out) is queasier than the latest sad chapter in Jagger's saga.

The first couple times through The Great Divide, you'll swear that Nelson had abandoned his pithy phrasing in favor of bombast, but that's all wrong. It's the arrangements, not the singing: Most of these cuts feel like a cross between sub-Garth Brooks country-radio fodder and sanctimonious folkie readymades. Even the stripped-down, flamenco-flavored title cut feels forced. Blame producer Matt Serletic's decision to use session players in place of Nelson's road band, which has been together for nearly 30 years--which also helps explain the lack of quirks that Nelson's fans cherish in his recent work. Even a sturdy oldie like Mickey Newbury's "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" sinks into the formula mire; its quaintly foolhardy lyrics sound all wrong in this brooding, fussy setting, devoid of the charm of earlier versions by proto-country-rockers the First Edition, psychedelic garage punks Supergrass--and, oh yeah, Willie Nelson, on last year's Rainbow Connection.

If The Great Divide suffers from trying to please too many people, Q-Tip has the opposite problem. In 1999, a year after leaving A Tribe Called Quest, the rapper made his solo bow with Amplified. That album's persona transmutation--conscious, impressionistic wordsmith turned newly jiggy man-about-town, complete with mechanical funk beats--had a lot of fans crying foul, despite the irresistible, neck-snapping hits "Breathe and Stop" and "Vivrant Thing." The new Kamaal the Abstract, on the other hand, finds Q-Tip not only returning to the soft jazz with which Quest made its name, but one-upping it. Instead of weaving his old Blue Note records into beat-heavy hip-hop, Q-Tip opts to re-create it whole cloth, directing a live band that includes jazz flutist Gary Thomas and alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, both former Miles Davis sidemen. Q-Tip hardly even raps; he prefers to let the grooves do the talking.

This move might sound like a face-saving about-face, a desperate grab for credibility. This theory is problematic two ways. One, Q-Tip is obviously sincere about this direction; he's audibly enjoying himself here. And two, almost nothing on Abstract sounds like it was actually intended to be heard by anyone but the musicians who made it, so they could learn how to play the songs correctly. They sure as hell didn't do it the first time.

The opening cut, "Feelin'," succinctly encapsulates the album's flavor. It opens promisingly, with a tough funk-rock groove played on guitar, bass, and drums. Q-Tip sounds stoned out of his gourd, but you keep listening, thinking that any second now it'll all coalesce. Instead, it collapses into a meandering, God-awful organ solo--and that's it. End of song. It's like sitting down to a movie and watching the celluloid melt in the projector immediately following the opening credits.

Right--he's doing it on purpose, to pull the rug out from underneath the listener, and it's certainly an effective shock tactic. As he puts it himself on "Abstractionisms," "I ain't getting caught up in your games of perfection." Problem is, he's not getting caught up in our expectations of content either. Except for Garrett's sax solo on "Abstractionisms" and the bubbling horn riff on "Even if It Is So," Abstract is the most smugly half-assed album released since Sebadoh started refusing to write real songs. A song like "Blue Girl" starts promisingly and then just seems to stop in its tracks, narcoleptic. And nearly all the songs follow a simple formula: half-assed riffs, chants of unfinished phrases ("I told you a million times"), direction-free solos . . . abstract. Get it? Uh, yeah, Q-Tip. About half an hour ago.

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