September 4, 2009

The Roots - Illadelph Halflife (September 24, 1996)

Illadelph Halflife was the third full-length album by Philadelphia rap band The Roots. (I was debating whether to type it out using all lowercase letters, because it looks cooler on the album cover that way, but I couldn't fine anything online or in the liner notes that specifically noted that there was any special way to write it out.) This project followed the efforts of band leaders Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson and Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter, along with the rest of their Roots crew, as they attempted to reach as many listeners as would have them, all without compromising their musical styles.

Illadelph Halflife was the first album by the Roots Crew that managed to move any units beyond the underground hip hop jazz aficionados, thanks to a creative-as-shit video for their single "What They Do" (which attacked hip hop cliches to hilarious effect), directed by Charles Stone III, who is also best known for helming those Budweiser commercials where idiots sit around screaming "Whassup?!". An inordinate amount of buzz found its way to MTV, which decided to actually play it during the day, inadvertently creating a whole new audience to wonder just who the fuck The Roots were.

I was one of those people. I caught the video on BET and not MTV, but Illadelph Halflife was still the first Roots album I ever bought. I wasn't yet accustomed to the lyrical dexterity of Black Thought and the m-ilitant rhymes of his partner Malik B., so Illadelph Halflife threw me for a loop right from the start, with the goofy liner notes (?uestlove always manages to craft entertaining stuff, even when he's simply listing the contributors on a song: for "What They Do", he names guest crooner Raphael Saadiq as one of the members of "Anthony Anthoni Anthone", which is just funny to me) and the introduction, which was taken from a documentary about the crew.

There will always be a soft spot in my heart for Illadelph Halflife, mainly because this purchase led me to grab the first two projects. It's not my favorite Roots album, nor is it their most accessible (not that they were ever worried about being accessible anyway). But this album saw the crew reaching out to their more blatant hip hop influences, and while the jazzy tones are never far behind, Illadelph Halflife could technically be called their first actual "rap" album.

As I've done for the past two releases, I'm going to number the tracklisting as a continuation of their catalog: hence, we're starting at number thirty-four.

What do you want me to say? It's only a rap album intro. I can take or leave.

Black Thought threatens to “close you like a caption”, which is fucking hilarious. The distorted vocals at the beginning are unsettling, but overall the song was okay, even though the beat is awfully bland. Maybe this track should have been buried somewhere in the middle of the second half of Illadelph Halflife.

This was the first Roots song I ever paid attention to (because this was a single), and, truth be told, I didn't really like it. It isn't the type of track that plays well when put up against its peers on the radio. Imy mind quickly shifted to “Clones” after I saw its accompanying video clip. However, when I finally bought illadelph halflife and listened to it straight through, I found myself nodding my head and appreciating the lyrics of Black Thought and Malik B. within the album's context. So, yeah, I changed my tune: this shit is pleasant as hell.

37. PANIC!!!!!!!
A Black Thought one-verse wonder that sounds claustrophobic, which may incite some panic in the listener themselves. Nice! Note: sadly, this is not a cover of the classic song by The Smiths. Although that would be a good idea, ?uestlove and company. I'm just saying.

This track wasn't memorable in the least. No wonder I ended up skipping this song in the past.

This shit sounds pretty smooth, especially the Jazzyfatnastees vocals over the instrumental. Dice Raw sounds as if he was tricked into showing up at the studio that morning with the aid of candy, as he doesn't sound like he was fully prepared for rhyming that day: as such, he fucks up the song entirely. Is that a Pac-Man death sound effect I hear in the background?

This collaboration with fellow Philadelphia rapper Bahamadia was the first song I gravitated toward that wasn't released as a single. A simple drum beat and a hypnotic melody combine to allow Black Thought to rip shit up, and even Malik B. sounds really good. They graciously concede the title of 'Best Performer' to their guest, though: this subdued beat is a perfect match for Bahamadia's monotone.

I like, but do not love, this song, because, while it is lyrically proficient and features Raphael Saadiq, a guy who I'm already on record as liking, the jazzy music underneath is a bit too radio friendly for the average Roots fan. However, the video is fucking brilliant, elevating “What They Do” onto another plane entirely, so this track still receives a recommendation from me. Strange, that.

What rap crew employs two beatboxers? Well, as of 1996, the Roots Crew did. Even though both Rahzel and Scratch have since moved on, their inclusion in the group cements the fact that The Roots are better hip hop fans than you are.

Okay, that title is kind of stupid. I remember the magazine Vibe (I would say R.I.P., but I hear it's supposed to be making a comeback) referring to this particular song as having a Rza-sounding beat. I don't hear any correlation, but this does have an instrumental that is leagues different than anything we've been presented thus far. Black Thought rips the stuffing out of said instrumental, too, so I was pleased.

This posse cut is the tits, and it created a level of expectation for Dice Raw's solo work that was so improbably high that there wasn't anything he could do but fail (when his solo album, Reclaiming The Dead, ended up sucking balls). Regardless of its later consequences, this song remains fucking awesome, and everyone plays well together. Best of all: there's no fucking hook! I know, I'm a little bit too excited, but for a damn good reason.

The music is ├╝ber-confrontational on here, with a darker tone than most of Illadelph Halflife has carried thus far. Common sounds awkward over the instrumental, though: his verse is good, but he flows as if he has one of No I.D.'s instrumentals from Resurrection stuck in a repeating loop through his subconscious. The Roots dominate the beat, making it their bitch and then sending it to make them a sandwich after the fact, so the early missteps are easily forgiven.

Black Thought puts on a lyrical clinic, but this song is blah all the way. Also, I swear that the Pac-Man death sound makes its reappearance. Since The Roots play all of their own instruments, it isn't very probable that they sampled a video game, but you never know.

This interlude was one I typically skipped back in the day. Today, I agree with my past self's judgment.

I liked the music on here a lot, but I can't remember anything else about the song. Oh well.

The Roots remixed this track into something called “The 'Notic” for the Men In Black soundtrack. If I remember correctly, the remix had a slightly edgier sound than this slow-paced reflection. This sound's okay, but D'Angelo's vocals may as well be a part of the instrumental, as they don't really stand out at all.

Bringing the universe together seems to be a running theme on Illadelph Halflife. I like this song, but I will admit that it's kind of an aural mess. The artists involved pass the mic back and forth with seemingly no real appreciation of any sort of consistent theme, while the musical accompaniment barely bothers to signify where the hook should be laid down, a hook that sucks anyway. However, Q-Tip sounds better on this one song than he did on all of Amplified, so that counts for something.

A jazzy R&B song that ends the musical portion of our program. Be forewarned: there is no rapping on here. Or if there was, I guess I blinked and missed it.

A spoken word track that ends the album as a whole. Not the worst I've ever heard, but longtime readers will have already guessed how I feel about this.

And we're done. Accurately sums up the crew's career up until 2009, as well. Weird.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Illadelph Halflife was a step toward the mainstream for The Roots, considered as such because the songs on here mostly abandoned the free-form style of their previous two efforts in order to make room for songs that have a definite beginning, ending, and a chorus. Lyrically, Black Thought (especially) and Malik B. have elevated their game, and the guests have to work twice as hard to keep up with them (with the exception of Bahamadia, who should just officially join up with the Roots Crew already). The band, led by figurehead ?uestlove's drumming, also manages to craft beats that the average hip hop head will enjoy, thereby broadening their audience without risking the possible alienation of their fans. This still isn't their most accessible disc, but it's fairly damn close.

BUY OR BURN? Some of this album drags on and on, and it probably could have benefited from some editing, but the great songs trump the skippable ones, so I recommend a purchase. Both rabid fans of the The Roots and newcomers will find much to love on here.

BEST TRACKS: “Clones”; “Push Up Ya Lighter”; “Panic!!!”; “Concierto Of The Desperado”; “UNI-Verse At War”; “Section”; “What They Do”


The Roots discography can be explored by clicking here.


  1. out of all the albums they recorded, this has to be their best work ever made, organix failed, do you want more?? failed, this one here has go to be their best work, this album is also the reason why i out B.T on my top 10, this is definitely a must buy

  2. I agree with some of the commentary here, in that if one puts this album in and tries to listen to a couple of the best songs, they might think that this is a shitty album.
    Given 70 minutes of your time, I will still only hit the "forward" button once when listening to it. This is my favorite of The Roots albums, and I am a Roots Stan, frankly.

  3. one of the most overrated albums ever

  4. to anonymous

    go listen to shitty rappers then homo faggot

  5. I always thought Malik b was better tbh. "rabid fans of the The Roots" yeah! I was listening to this 2 days ago and wondered if No alibi would fit your "too wordy chorus" modifier

  6. malik b had an awesome flow in this album, i just dont get how come he inst mentioned that much, because not only did BT stepped up as an emcee but so did malik, this album will remain on my top ten hip hop classics

  7. "No Alibi" is one of my favorite songs on this album. Moody, dark instrumentals and good verses.