NEW YORK — THE TANK-LIKE Mercedes SUV rumbled into Times Square one evening in late spring with all the subtlety of a space shuttle launch. It wasn't simply the boom-bip issuing at ear-splitting volume from the truck's bazooka speakers -- although the sound of kick drums that loud was enough to get passersby wondering, even complaining, about the person behind the wheel. You could see something else happening: hip-hop fans of all stripes having a "Hey, isn't that . . . ?" moment, connecting the music coming from the vehicle with its driver, New York "conscious" rapper Q-Tip.
The on-again-off-again front man-producer for seminal hip-hop quartet A Tribe Called Quest and one of the genre's most transcendent MCs, Q-Tip largely has kept to himself since 1999, when his last album, "Amplified," hit No. 4 on the national hip-hop/R&B chart. Outside of a scant few guest verses on other performers' songs (including the Chemical Brothers' European smash hit "Galvanize," for which Q-Tip won a Grammy) and dribs of production work for the likes of Stevie Wonder, Mariah Carey and Mobb Deep, he's remained virtually silent. Rap aficionados, meanwhile, never forgot him.
Bathed in Times Square's neon glow, the Queens native nodded coolly in time with "Shaka," the first track on his eagerly awaited second solo album; a song on which the voice of Barack Obama soars over a crushing beat, intoning his message of hope and change -- a sound byte Q-Tip excerpted from one of the candidate's campaign speeches.
"I feel like Obama in a way," the rapper would say later. "His idea that hope means not shrinking from a fight; it's the courage to reach for something. My music is that. Those are principles I try to embody. He said it so eloquently, I thought it would be a proper way to start things off."
Appropriately enough, Q-Tip's first commercially released album in nine years is titled "The Renaissance," signaling both a reclamation of the spotlight and a rebirth of the hip-hop cool he helped create. But don't call it a comeback. To hear him tell it, he never really went away. He simply recorded several albums' worth of music without releasing it, waiting for the right cultural tipping point to reemerge on the scene. "Where have I been?" Q-Tip asked. "Working. Between you and me, I was waiting for the time to be right."
Just weeks in front of A Tribe Called Quest reuniting to perform 10 dates on the nation's top-grossing hip-hop event, the Rock the Bells tour (which hits the Glen Helen Pavilion on Aug. 9), the rapper-producer allowed a visiting reporter to preview the album while riding shotgun on an SUV crawl around Manhattan.
The verdict: "The Renaissance" marks a return to form that rivals Q-Tip's best work on Tribe's beloved 1993 album, "Midnight Marauders." Featuring multi-platinum-selling singer Norah Jones (on her first hip-hop "collabo"), as well as neo-soul crooners D'Angelo and Raphael Saadiq, "The Renaissance" blends live instrumentation and samples. It encompasses summer jams and club bangers as well as introspective songs such as "We Fight, We Love" (contrasting the experiences of a young girl in a bad relationship with a young man fighting in Iraq) and succeeds -- despite an overwhelming burden of expectation -- as one of the most artistically whole CDs of the late '00s.
Moreover, "The Renaissance" sounds thoroughly modern for the simple fact that so many other artists are just now aping what Q-Tip did 20 years ago.
Discussing the professional odyssey leading to its September release on Universal Motown -- he changed record labels five times in six years, bouncing among every major hip-hop imprint except Island Def Jam, and took an acting role in the 2007 thriller "The Invasion" -- Q-Tip, 38, sounded less like a world-weary casualty of the industry's hustle and flow than a kind of hip-hop J.D. Salinger who has come out of years in the wilderness with his optimism guarded yet intact.
"Since 'Amplified,' I've recorded three albums. I shot a movie with Nicole Kidman that I got cut out of -- it was crap anyways. But I am totally happy with where I'm at artistically," Q-Tip said over an extravagant omakase sushi supper on the Upper West Side. "One thing the music industry has taught me is to manage my expectations. I'm looking forward to moving forward. I've got so many ideas. I see things very clearly."