(Def Jam; 2006)
By Mark Abraham | 24 August 2006
Okay, players. Remember when we all wrote the Roots off, ?uestioning why we ever cared in the first place? Well, not exactly, because “Proceed,” “Clones,” and “Next Movement” would loom large over any catalogue. But even halfway through Things Fall Apart (1999) (about the point where Malik disappeared) we were thinking, “Really? Seriously? Is ‘ballsy electric piano’ the only patch Kamal’s keyboard has?” The ideas that had made the Roots relevant suddenly seemed tired, and the six people that actually cared that they were a Hip Hop Band stopped mentioning that all the time. Phrenology (2002) had its moments, sure, but the biggest story was the loss of their new guitarist Ben Kenney to that band who sang “Drive” (I know I could look it up, but isn’t it funnier that I can’t remember the band’s name? “Iccarus?” “Iconic Mall Punk?”), mostly ‘cause it meant that said band would continue on pretending they were “experimental.” And then, and I think this is what did it, The Tipping Point (2004) was kind of accepted by fans everywhere with a resigned “meh,” as if the shit quality of the album just wasn’t at all surprising. So we wrote them off, slotting the Roots in directly behind J5 in the hierarchy of Hip Hop Groups With Live Shows Fun Enough For Frat Boys.
Get ready to be surprised. Somehow, and for none of the reasons the Roots even deserve mention in the historical progress of rap (excepting Hub’s ever-present cigarillo), Game Theory—even with two tracks consecutively titled “Baby, Here I Come”—is good. Not just passable, but really good. Erasing the chalkboard good. I’m as confused as you.
Okay, but let’s be clear. I’ve duct-taped my trigger fingers together (which makes it hard to type) just in case the nostalgic power of Do You Want More?!!!??! (1995) makes me drop a 90-bomb on this shit. It ain’t that. But there’s no ill-formed punk excursions, the wonky experimentation is worked into the songs rather than stacked on top of and in between them (and in general is far less wonky), and, most shockingly, Black Thought is, for the first time in centuries, rapping about shit other than how ill his own damn illaself is. Well, some of the time, anyway.
So what’s different? First off, Thought sounds angry. I might even say “eye of the tiger,” if it wasn’t so far beyond that. Whereas Thought’s nimble jazz-spit technique has tended to undermine his political commentary in the past, on Game Theory it isn’t easy to escape the “fuck you” for the funk. His usual elasticity (quoth Aaron: “he makes other mcs sound sloppy”) abounds, but it’s nail-gunned to the beats; he’s punctuating clearly, and the elasticity itself serves his varying emotive deliveries, rather than, as in the past, defying any emotion whatsoever. Single “Don’t Feel Right” delivers his new manifesto; lines like “this ain’t a press junket / I ain’t seeking responses” and “if you ain’t speaking your life / your rhymes adopted” characterize Black Thought v.8 (harder, faster, better, stronger). I know—after his by-the-numbers guest spot on Pick a Bigger Weapon, it’s even more shocking.
But beyond Thought’s transformation, the mooky jazz hooks central to The Roots of Hip Hop’s Past sound have been soulified, sliced up, and refashioned as something vital. Check the chorus on “Don’t Feel Right,” one of the best of the year, where the chance that you’ll be singing along in about five seconds hovers around 95%. As other-than-mc guests have become more frequent on Roots releases, the band have finally (if slowly) escaped the quandary implicit in their make-up. Since letting Jazz flip his seismic scratching on “The Next Movement,” the band seemed confined to a liminal space: to sample or not to sample. Thrice removed from Scratch and Rahzel, buoyed by shifting line-ups and necessity, and moving to Def Jam, it seems they’ve stopped caring. Samples abound on Game Theory (including, as Clay has noted, Radiohead), and unlike The Tipping Point, are used to rework the band’s tired formula into something exciting.
The samples aren’t the only spice in the pot. ?uestlove’s drums sound crisp and reinvigorated; rather than playing punk and rock, he throws Detroit auto-factory noises under “In the Music” while Thought gives “illest” (sort of) negative valence for the first time ever when referring to Philadelphia. “Take It There” gives ?uest room to experiment with drum tracks; the beat sounds close to beat boxing until his high hat slurs come in. The song stalls a bit until Kamal throws some dirge piano rolls over the end, the wild orchestration flipping the song emotionally and supporting Thought’s narrative. Immediately after, “Baby” clicks in, all “Chain Gang” vocal grunts and Leslie Cabinet guitars. The song veers towards the Andre 3000 irony-plus gauge of hip hop love songs, but the beat is interesting enough to make it work. “Here I Come,” fortunately, has nothing to do with the track before it, and besides a silly chorus, has Thought condensing syllables like he’s possessed over ?uest’s slap-happy snare, Captain Kirk’s industrial guitar, and Kamal’s synth flourishes.
“Long Time” and “Livin’ in a New World” begin the final section of the album. The former has Thought discussing life in South Philly over a neat little funk riff and a barrage of percussion. It’s arguably the track on the album where the band sounds like they’re having the most fun; the cruising soul vocals on the hook and the lilting strings soar behind the propulsive beat, highlighting the Roots’ above-average ability to be sentimental without sounding forced or ludicrous. “New World” makes a Beck of Black Thought on a megaphone filter; in a neat production trick, the filter slips away as a gorgeous flute sample enters. Screw MTV Unplugged; this is as acoustic as the Roots have ever sounded. The inoffensive-but-kind-of-just-there “Clock With No Hands” fills out the menu before “Atonement” Amnesiacs its way into history.
Game Theory’s highs never quite reach those of Do You Want More?!!!??! or Illadeph Halflife (1996), and those albums, even with those highs, are still inconsistent affairs. Which means that the Roots are back on track, but the track itself was never something we praised wholeheartedly in the first place. Game Theory shows the band working overtime on interesting ideas and textures formed into fresh beats, shedding the once ironclad definitions of what the Roots should sound like far more successfully than Phrenology or The Tipping Point, but still perched on a precipice of formula. It feels weird saying this about a band that has been around forever, but leap off, already.