The Roots aren’t what you think they are. First off, they aren’t the best live band in hiphop. (Ever caught an OutKast show?) Sure, ?estlove is a very good drummer, but the rest of the group is very average onstage, frenetic lead MC Black Thought included. And though everyone loves the parlor trick of the group reinterpreting old-school classics on real live instruments, the fact is that one need not reach that far back in time—or in Chocolate City, even that far away—to find a live band to bring the Roots to heel: Any of the classic go-go outfits will suffice. Neither are the Roots the overlooked underground talent they present themselves as. After all, the Philadelphia-based six-piece has a Grammy, and Black Thought references the award the way other rappers reference guns. As a guest on Talib Kweli’s new album, he actually references both in the same line.
What the Roots actually are is fairly simple: the makers of some of the best hiphop released in the past 10 years. The group possesses what any great rap group must: killer beats and dynamic MCing. It would have been easy for the Roots to get mired in the amorphous world of jazz-rap after their relatively lush 1995 breakthrough LP, Do You Want More?!!!??!, but Illadelph Halflife, the group’s 1996 follow-up, was a straight-ahead hiphop album. And its next LP, Things Fall Apart—a not-quite-triumphant return after three years’ silence—incorporated elements of drum ‘n’ bass.
Equal to the group’s eclectic production has been Black Thought’s fluid lyrical ability. When Black Thought is at his best, there are few MCs who can equal his talent for sounding comfortable over seemingly any track. And beyond being a master of manipulating rhythm, Black Thought has a literary sensibility that exceeds that of most of his contemporaries. It’s what enabled him to make cuts such as Things Fall Apart’s love-life-vs.-hiphop-life tale “You Got Me” without sounding corny. “I stepped off the stage/And took a piece of her heart/We knew from the start that/Things fall apart, intentions shatter,” he rapped on the track. The lines are powerful not simply because they sum up the singular—and probably doomed—relationship that Black Thought is pursuing, but because they articulate the essential tragedy of life: All things fall apart.
The new Phrenology marks another return for the Roots—as well as another new sound that shows how far the group has moved away from its origins. Phrenology is a noisy album that revels in the beauty of the beat. Most of the tracks are motivated not by a grand assemblage of sound, but by ?uestlove’s drums and Black Thought’s vocals. Clearly, the record was composed around the theory of head nod, and it wastes no time training its sights on percussion lovers. Lead-off song “Rock You,” produced by DJ Scratch, pounds away abrasively without mercy or break, with Black Thought’s lyrics jackhammering the track as much as ?uestlove’s drums: “I remain miles ahead of the game/Slang play off the meter ’cause it’s never the same/Niggas tell me how they never come in better than plain…/Here come the rebel breakin’ the frame.” The cut doesn’t achieve much musically, but it does establish that this will be a different type of album for the Roots.
“Rolling With Heat” follows the same formula, adding a twangy “croonaphone” riff and a decent cameo from Kweli. Though Kweli holds his own, Black Thought dominates the track by matching the beat’s unfettered aggression: “Ice your watch, rock your rocks/Better rock that on the screen and not the blocks/’Cause them jewels don’t stop them shots/And so many’ll fly, the jakes just gotta stop and watch.” By the time the cut reaches the sung-spoken chorus, it’s obvious that this could be no one but the Roots. Equally successful is “The Seed (2.0),” a cut that is just barely a rap song. Black Thought’s lyrics fight to be heard among all the percussive clatter and distorted bass, but the cut succeeds through its soul-style guitar riff and guest vocalist Cody ChesnuTT’s bluesy hook.
Lyrically, the album’s highlight is the nearly 11-minute “Water,” a cut that vaguely references the absence of ex-Roots MC Malik B. Over some of Phrenology’s smoothest production, Black Thought paints the picture of a former comrade who lost his way in the urban wilderness: “Tuggin’ in between Islam and straight thuggin’/Layin’ every day around the way and doin’ nuthin’/See them lookin’, shakin’ they head and start shruggin’/If they don’t got a man like mine, they got a cousin/Hey, yo, you better be a true friend to him/Before the shit put an end to him/Or give a pen to him/Or lock him in a studio with a mike.” The cut demonstrates Black Thought’s ability to connect with his audience by invoking a universal trope—the struggle between the Good Book and the sword—and, in his reference to Islam, making it a very specific one for African-Americans.
The biggest problem with Phrenology is some of the decisions made by its handlers. The first single is the schlocky “Break You Off,” a cut that embodies the worst of neo-soul. The track is syrupy and plodding and so different in aesthetic and quality from the rest of the album that it clashes disturbingly. It’s also Phrenology’s weakest selection lyrically, with Black Thought looking at one of the most cliched of rap subjects: the art of adultery. “Bad missus throwin’ raspberry kisses on me/You lookin’ for direction, girl, I feel your vision on me,” he rhymes. “Just don’t let him see you sweatin’/We ain’t s’posed to be involved…/’Cause you got a man who prolly plain’ his part.” It’s enough to make you wonder whether the purportedly $300,000 song is the result of a label-mandated focus group rather than an unadulterated Roots effort.
What makes the cut even more puzzling is the fact that there is an obvious single on the album in the form of “Sacrifice.” Beyond featuring the very marketable Nelly Furtado, the song also exemplifies how good the Roots can be, especially on the feel-good chorus, which deftly avoids becoming tragically bubbly. Furtado is used to very little effect—which is fine, as long as a crossover video is in the works. Minus such a ploy, her presence is completely unnecessary.
Such minor flaws aside, Phrenology re-establishes the Roots as one of the great hiphop groups. Like OutKast, the sextet has reinvented itself with each album, yet somehow maintained an identifiable sound. For this reason alone, the Roots stand above their competition: They have proven capable of a phenomenon—growth—that escapes most hiphop acts. Perhaps the best thing you can say about them, though, is that they’ve never allowed their ambition to outstrip their inventiveness. Even in an industry in which people who make a livelihood of whispering in artists’ ears wreck career after career, you can count on the Roots never to do a duet with Trick Daddy or Britney Spears. These days, moments like Phrenology are fleeting, but hiphoppers can take comfort knowing that the Roots will someday give us another one. CP