Monday, June 21, 2010
The Roots - How I Got Over
For almost two decades, The Roots have remained a beacon of musical and intellectual quality in the mire of a hip-hop scene that has undergone constant fluctuation. For a casual hip-hop listener like myself, The Roots embody everything that is best in the genre: powerful lyrics, aggressive production, and a stellar live show that stands head and shoulders above its contemporaries. Lead MC Black Thought has never shied away from a bit of modern wisdom rapped with spirit and intensity, backed by the always-excellent production and percussion of drummer ?uestlove (I'm going to try to write that name as few times as possible for the sake of my sanity). Unfortunately, their unique approach to hip-hop has always kept The Roots more or less out of the commercial spotlight, though fans of the genre will undoubtedly appreciate their influence. This trend has never really changed, so whenever the band decides to release an album, it always comes as both a surprise that they continue to successfully reinvent their music and a disappointment that their type of work isn't less prevalent in the popular music scene.
The band's latest effort, "How I Got Over," comes after they have been thrust into the spotlight by virtue of being Jimmy Fallon's late night band (probably the only thing of value Fallon has ever been associated with). On a large scale, the album marks a significant departure from the band's last release, "Rising Down," which was 16 tracks of caustic hip-hop fury at its finest. This time around, The Roots find themselves more or less in relax mode. "How I Got Over" contains some of the most laid back material the band has ever released, largely as a result of its chilled-out, almost ambient production style. As usual, the songs are anchored around ?uestlove's beats, which are as solid as ever, if not particularly remarkable here. More surprising is the use of piano and light synth samples that seem to float around the drums. These musical choices have the dual effect of creating an exceptional flow over the album's duration while making the individual songs nearly blend together. As a cohesive product, the album works particularly well in this regard; it is listenable on a broad scale in a way that "Rising Down" was certainly not. Unfortunately, this makes "How I Got Over" difficult to engage in on the intimate, smash-your-face way that makes much of The Roots' material so effective.
Fortunately, it doesn't seem that the band's recent exposure has altered their poetically realistic worldview. Black Thought seems as inspired as ever, engaging in topics ranging from religion, modern discourse, poverty, and so on. As usual, guest appearances abound here, with P.O.R.N., Truck North, the Dirty Projectors, and various others offering their stylings to the record, but none with the same power as Black Thought himself. His disgust with the state of modern media is apparent on "Dear God 2.0," the album's first standout, where the MC observes, "technology turning the planet into zombies/ Everybody all in everybody's dirty laundry," and asks, "Why is the world ugly when you made it in your image?" These are deep issues for any rapper, and Black Thought tackles them with courage and intensity. For all the uncertainty contained in the first half of the album though, The Roots seem to offer some reconciliation. On "The Fire," a notable collaboration with John Legend, Black Thought raps a kind of fierce determination that was previously absent from the album: "You can't escape/ the history you was meant to make/ That's why the highest victory is what I'm meant to take/ You came to celebrate/ I came to celebrate." Coming from Black Thought, it's a convincing sentiment, and is ultimately the emotional high point of the album.
More than anything, "How I Got Over" is the most mixed bag The Roots have created in years. In the end, enjoyment of the album will likely come down to the listener's mindset. Longtime fans, especially those who enjoyed "Rising Down," may be disappointed by this album's laid back tone, mostly devoid of musical aggression. However, listeners are also encouraged to take in "How I Got Over" a few times before making judgment; its ideas are rapped in such density that it merits repeated listens. Though it lacks a significant number of excellent songs, the album works well enough as a whole that the dedicated listener will forgive the absence. If nothing else, "How I Got Over" proves that The Roots are as observant as ever, and are perhaps even hopeful about what they see.
Stream the album for free here.