At this point, the Roots have been around long enough — and have been accruing glowing reviews long enough — that there are two kinds of hardcore music lovers: Those who are fans of the band, and those who are tired of hearing about how great they are. If you fall into the latter camp, I’m not going to waste much time trying to convert you; I don’t understand you, but I respect your ability to tune out some of the most soulful and intelligent hip-hop of the last 15 years. It must take commitment. What I will tell you is this: The Roots’ new album, How I Got Over, is one of the best things I’ve heard all year, and I can’t stop listening to it.
The Roots don’t make party hip-hop; in fact, their last few records, including Game Theory and Rising Down, have seen them detaching themselves from the genre’s beat-driven aesthetic and moving into a brave new world of jazz-informed instrumentation, left-field samples, and increasingly grim social commentary. Critics, naturally, have continued going apeshit for the band, even as the commercial afterglow following “You Got Me” has faded — but critics have to listen to a lot of mind-numbing mainstream stuff all the time, and that has a way of making you hungry for anything outside the norm. Audiences, meanwhile, create the norm, and they’re often indifferent to pop culture that challenges their expectations. To wit: Rising Down, the Roots’ most recent studio set, has sold fewer than 175,000 copies.
Unlike the majority of hip-hop acts, the Roots are a band, not a crew, which has made it even harder for them to exist in the sub-platinum troposphere. They need to perform to hone their chops, but staying on the road with a group of any size costs money. The guys in the band aren’t young men anymore; they’ve got families to support, and it’s got to be tempting to give in to disillusionment when you know you deserve widespread success, but your highest-profile gigs tend to come in back-up roles, like serving as Jay-Z’s live band or anchoring Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. Hence their much-ballyhooed decision to act as the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon — it was mocked by some, but it only made sense for the group, and it’s produced some of the most watchable moments on late-night television over the last year and change.
And if anything, it seems to have actually sharpened their artistic focus. How I Got Over‘s lyrical outlook is often just as gloomy as anything on Game Theory or Rising Down, but the songs offer some of the tightest, leanest arrangements of the band’s career. The album has a dark, organic sound that suggests something akin to a 21st-century What’s Going On — the music is accessible, with a higher hooks-per-song quotient than Rising Down, but it doesn’t compromise the band’s signature style, and it doesn’t pander. Some critics have already expressed surprise at how little Obama’s election seems to have impacted Black Thought’s lyrics, but if you pay attention, How I Got Over is, perhaps more than any other Roots record, a testament to the power of hope — and the need for community — in trying times. A case in point is the title track’s refrain:
Out on the streets
Where I grew up
First thing they teach us:
Not to give a fuck
That type of thinking can’t get you nowhere
Someone has to care
Fans of the band, and Twitter followers of drummer Questlove, have been watching in frustration for months as How I Got Over slid back on the release schedule, but the extra incubation seems to have had a tightening effect; there’s a real warmth to these songs, even at the album’s darkest moments, but there’s also a steely economy to the arrangements. It sounds like an album whose non-essential bits have been steadily stripped away, until what’s left is something you can get lost in for days at a time without getting tired of it. For my second pass through the album, I plugged in a pair of headphones, turned off everything else, and just luxuriated in the wonder of modern hip-hop songs that actually make use of musical dynamics. There’s space in here. Room to think. Room to settle in. This isn’t the first thing most people will notice about How I Got Over, but it makes a profound difference, and it’s part of what continues to make the Roots special. If there aren’t at least a million people waiting to fall in love with this album, maybe we need to lose our music privileges for awhile.
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