Rap Music's Orson Welles

Real art guards its stature carefully. New styles and schools and stars can spend years in the woodshed, working to prove their claims on cultural immortality. In its early decades, Hollywood movies were dogged by an aura of low-culture disposability—it would take French critics to suggest Hitchcock as an auteur on par with novelists and painters. So it makes sense that hip-hop, pop music's most recent invention, still endures slights 30 years after its birth, even when it dominates the charts. But as dissertations on the genre begin to fill the halls of academe—Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute officially adopted an online "Hip-Hop Archive" earlier this year—rap scholars will have the case of Q-Tip to cite when staking their claim to High Art. More likely to rhyme about vegetarianism or painters than pimps dealing drugs, Q-Tip became a forebear of today's "conscious rap" movement as the de facto frontman in A Tribe Called Quest. Now with his latest solo release, "The Renaissance," Q-Tip is closing on 20 years of relevance. As always, the new CD features the rapper delighting in sophisticated, slightly left-of-field rhythms and eschewing the outlaw posturing of generic MCs. The week after its release, "The Renaissance" debuted on the Billboard 200 chart at No. 11, without any major radio or video promotion—a testament to Q-Tip's staying power in a game where a span of months can render a rapper yesterday's news. "My thing is not like McDonald's, where you go in and get fast results," Q-Tip told NEWSWEEK. "My thing is like a gumbo or a turkey dinner—you got to let it cook and marinate."

On his new record, the results are pretty tasty. The first sound on the opening track, "Johnny Is Dead," is an electric guitar oozing a staccato jazz chord change that proceeds to dance around the initial rhymes on the record. Elsewhere, "Dance on Glass" opens with a virtuoso one-minute a cappella verse calling out the shallowness of most rap lyrics. "What you lookin' at? Wait, I can help you with that: the formidable, unforgettable, painting abstract. On the wall amongst 'em all, from Warhol to Jean-Michel [Basquiat]. The commodity, hot property, here's the morning bell." The rich palette of references underscores Q-Tip's desire to create music that lasts, though that attention to craft is not the only reason for the nine-year hiatus since his gold-selling debut solo record, "Amplified." One album the rapper made, with a rock-jazz fusion band, was shelved early this decade, after Clive Davis left the top spot at Arista Records and a less sympathetic regime was installed. "I don't hear a single," is what Q-Tip remembers the new studio head telling him before dumping the album, "Kamaal the Abstract," which Q-Tip had intended to subtitle "new directions in hip-hop," a reference to Miles Davis's landmark fusion record "Bitches Brew." Other corporate disasters followed, including a stillborn partnership with Geffen and the implosion of the DreamWorks music label before a fully finished Q-Tip album could see the light of day. That high incidence of corporate drama recalls the travails of another auteur in another once young art form. After his success with "Citizen Kane," Orson Welles struggled for decades to release films without studio interference. In the era before the "director's cut," studio suits descended on Welles's editing room, messing with the pacing and narrative structure of "The Magnificent Ambersons" and "Touch of Evil."

Welles would have clucked his tongue in sympathy at Q-Tip's corporate burn rate: Universal-Motown is the rapper's fourth major label so far this decade. "I'm not a radio dude; I'm about the long-term. It was like that with Tribe, and it's like that now," Q-Tip says, expressing some surprise that the honchos at Universal have been willing to work with him on "The Renaissance." What's changed since Tribe's day, the rapper believes, is that "record-company people" have gone from simply being shady to out-and-out scared. "Their model for getting numbers is broken," he says. "They realize it, but they don't have any solutions. They all seem shook." Q-Tip has his own prescription: "A&R departments need people who really know music. That way, they can make records that last a long time, because eventually it's going to be about the whole catalog selling again. Especially in these hard times, people want to make sure that their dollar is going to something that's worth something." He says he hasn't had a chance to listen to Kanye West's chart-topping new album "808s and Heartbreak," but Q-Tip cites him as someone taking chances to expand the art form. (Though Kanye's record actually could have benefited from more interference: his fourth record in five years, while daring and brilliant in spots, is sadly undercooked on the whole.) Q-Tip may have a chance to prove his own theory in 2009. He just regained control of the master tapes of the unreleased "Kamaal" album, and he plans to put it out himself. If hip-hop fans pay for a record that's been a near legend as a bootleg for more than seven years, then Q-Tip will not only have served as a past and present innovator, but also changed pop's future business model in the new century, too.