For New Horizons in Hip-Hop, Study . . .
When the roulette wheel of life has, for unknown reasons, plopped you into the daily squabbles of deep South Philly instead of the placid leisure of the city's affluent Main Line, you can sit and moan, or you can be like water and flow around the obstacles. That's what the Roots did. They started out as a human jukebox able to fulfill any hip-hop requests, playing for change on the street. Making hip-hop supported not by turntables, but by a cohesive jazz-versed live band, the Roots developed a reputation as a powerhouse band. And through constant touring, it became the first-call hip-hop groove machine—an integral part of Jay-Z's excellent Unplugged, and an inspiration to both rappers and singers. At each step along a surprising evolutionary path, the Roots showed how hip-hop could benefit from genuine musicianship. Of the titles, Things Fall Apart, with its statement-of-devotion single "You Got Me," is the most accessible. Phrenology, however, comes closest to capturing the manic totality of the Roots.
Named for the arcane science of divining personality traits based on the shape of a person's head, Phrenology is a big old raspberry to every entrenched convention about hip-hop music. Its tracks are long, with elaborate interludes (one descends into a tempoless avantgarde phantasmagoria). Textures include abject noise and distorted rock guitars. Drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, an astute scholar of black music whose vinyl collection exceeds 50,000 titles, discreetly updates rhythms fashionable generations before—check the blinged-out Bo Diddley beat that underpins the magnificent "Water," rapper Black Thought's tale of losing a comrade to drugs.
Some grooves have very little hip-hop in them—singer Jill Scott's "Complexity" is a seafaring samba, yet the Roots never seem pulled beyond their comfort zone. Even rock detours display a serious flow, with Black Thought—one of the elite hip-hop MCs to establish street credibility without going thug—thrashing through triple-time diatribes. These pulverizing tracks should be required listening for anyone intending to rap in public: Though filled with accounts of adversity, the rapper shows no strain. He just slides right along, like water, bound for someplace better.
Released: 2002, MCA
Key Tracks: "Sacrifice," "Complexity," "Water," "The Seed 2.0."
Catalog Choice: Things Fall Apart; The Roots Come Alive.
Next Stop: Jay-Z: Unplugged
After That: Blackalicious: Blazing Arrow.
Book Pages: 660–661