June 25, 2010

My Gut Reaction: The Roots - How I Got Over (June 22, 2010)

I glanced at the first paragraph in the New York Times write-up for the ninth (seriously!) album from The Roots, How I Got Over, and the author proclaimed them to be the most widely-seen hip hop group ever.  I think that would be giving Jimmy Fallon a bit too much credit: although it was a stroke of genius to hire on the Roots Crew as his house band after taking over for Conan O'Brien, it's not as though ?uestlove and company have suddenly turned into household names.  If anything, they are simply better-known to college stoners then they normally would have been.

This is not to call The Roots sellouts or anything.  It's well-documented that they took the NBC gig for the promise of a consistent paycheck, what with the economy going into the shitter and all.  But it is a positive sign that they have not allowed the lure of a day job (of sorts) to hamper their continued musical career: The Roots still perform tons of live shows (most of them are simply much closer to 30 Rock in proximity now), and they still found the time to record How I Got Over, even though they had earlier proclaimed their previous effort, Rising Down (which I still find underwhelming today), as their final album.

How I Got Over consists of a streamlined fourteen tracks, three of which are interludes, and nearly all of which feature guest stars from different corners of the music industry.  A cynic, such as myself, may feel that this was done simply due to the lack of available time to schedule studio sessions.  But I also happen to enjoy music when it is well done, whether it is an original composition or a remake of someone else's work: art is all about one's interpretation.

How I Got Over was produced primarily by ?uestlove and affiliate member Dice Raw, who worked as an A&R for the project and even lends his singing vocals to more than one track.  Unfortunately, we have been deprived of the story behind Dice's newly furnished executive leanings: even though ?uestlove put out a call for questions to be answered within the liner notes of How I Got Over (always a pleasure to read on Roots albums), Def Jam Records screwed the pooch, fucked the neighbor cat, and fingerbanged those squirells in your backyard by failing to include anything except the song credits.  Really, Def Jam?  What the hell?

(Once again, I'm going with the standard numeration for this Gut Reaction post: if I ever get around to re-reviewing it, I'll honor the tracklisting as a part of the Roots catalog as a whole.)

Some calm and soothing introductory music from the female members of Dirty Projectors. Pleasant enough, I suppose.

“Walk Alone”, a mediation on loneliness, could just as easily double as an official statement from the Roots Crew as to their place on the hip hop spectrum. How I Got Over begins with a down note, although the song itself is actually pretty good: the production is meandering and non-celebratory (I mean that in an unobtrusive way), and the guest rhymes from Truck North and the still-unfortunately named P.O.R.N. are decent enough. Hell, I even enjoyed Dice Raw's crooning voice. But when Black Thought, the fourth artist to appear (on his own goddamn album, mind you), steps in to get his “Charlie Parker on”, the eyes in your ears are glued to him alone. Good to see that he can still captivate an audience nine albums into his career. Also, it was pretty funny to find out that a song ostensibly about walking alone through life is actually a posse cut.

One of the more notable aspects of How I Got Over is just how many of the presented tracks are remakes or remixes of already existing songs outside of the hip hop universe: it's almost as though The Roots were actively responding to Drake's So Far Gone (the free mixtape version with all of the uncleared samples, anyway). Never mind the fact that the Roots Crew have already utilized the “borrowed song” idea in the past (see: the Cody ChesnuTT redo “The Seed (2.0)”, also featuring ChesnuTT, from Phrenology, an album I will get to eventually). On here, they borrow “Dear God (Sincerely, M.O.F.)” from the supergroup Monsters of Folk (made up of My Morning Jacket's Jim James, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis from Bright Eyes, and M. Ward, all names that you wouldn't expect to read about in a rap album review) and turn it into one of the gloomiest (Thought discusses the murder of his father and, at one point, simply lists a bunch of societal ills) and transcendent hip hop songs ever fucking recorded. Yes, it plays into the depressing themes introduced on “Walk Alone”, but it remains powerful in its melancholy. One of the best songs The Roots have ever recorded, easily, and Black Thought's performance especially deserves applause.

Blogger favorite Blu, who everyone likes to pretend is still an indie artist but in reality is actually signed to Warner Bros., makes the first of two guest appearances on How I Got Over, thereby earning himself much more exposure than his cameo on The Alchemist's Chemical Warfare could ever conjure up. Maybe now his Below The Heavens will see a re-release. I like how the Roots Crew's taste in hip aligns so closely to my own (and that of most of you two, I assume): this makes nearly any artist that they choose to work with worthy of listening to. (The lone exception I can come up with is when Black Thought worked with the shitty duo Philly's Most Wanted, but I think that was more of a hometown solidarity thing and not an act of mutual respect.) All “Radio Daze” makes you wish is that the radio really did play songs such as this on a regular basis. And who knew that Dice Raw had such a good voice?

I kind of miss Dice Raw the lyricist. Although his vocals on How I Got Over are not anywhere near the musical abortion I had feared, I still wish that he would use that high-pitched delivery (well, it isn't as high-pitched now) to spit a quick sixteen, just like the good old days. (For the record: his recent single “100” is actually pretty good.) So when he finally raps on here, it's a welcome sight, as his skill set has advanced greatly since his early days pre-”Clones”. Black Thought and Little Brother's Phonte hold up their end of the bargain as well, and “Now Or Never” is a pleasant drive through town, one with no true destination (but nowhere near aimless) and no hurried pace. This shit was nice.

The first single, which came out roughly one fucking year ago, although my perception is probably a bit off. This jazzy number features singing vocals from both Dice Raw and Black Thought, and they both come across as competent-to-good singers (Thought is even nice enough to throw a verse at the listener). The song, which sneaks up on your subconscious like a hip hop ninja, feels at once joyous and empty, as though the act of giving of oneself can result in losing oneself: the track seems to invite the listener to fill the void with their...I don't know, their hearts or something. Either way, this shit is tight, and the timeless quality that it evokes after having been available for so long prior to the album's release will bode well for its future. Also, my wife started singing along to the catchy chorus immediately after hearing it the first time, so that was nice.

A nice instrumental way to break up the day's events. Glad to see that the late J. Dilla is never far away from the Roots Crew's collective thoughts.

Both Blu and Phonte turn in their final cameos on this particular track, which is built around a chorus from Icelandic vocalist Patty Crash. The beat keeps with the low-key approach How I Got Over is striving for: at this point in their careers, The Roots are free from their need to impress anybody, as you would have paid attention to this particular project only if you were a fan to begin with. This allows them to explore themes such as maturity and fear without any sort of hassle, and as a result, they end up impressing everybody anyway. I will say that this song sounds as though it was performed by three different personalities of Black Thought, due to the complementary cadences and subject matter from the rhyming guests, which was a little weird, but when the lyrics sound good, you won't get any real complaints from me.

The chorus, performed by and borrowed from Joanna Newsom and her “The Book Of Right-On”, is pushing it a bit, as the title phrase is never actually used, but who the fuck cares when you get Black Thought (who really should be in your top ten at this point) spitting over some hard fucking drums, drums so hard that they have been literally aroused by the rest of the musical accompaniment and now require the aid of a cold shower to calm back down? The hook only exists to set the song into a conventional verse-chorus-verse structure, but neither Thought nor his invited guest seem to mind, as both men dress to impress. I don't think a Roots album has ever been as consistent as How I Got Over thus far: I hope I didn't just jinx myself.

Playing into the idea that How I Got Over is a response to the importance of mixtapes within the culture of hip hop, the Roots Crew craft a remake-slash-sequel (or, more appropriately, a “remix”, as Black Thought helpfully expresses in his very first line) of John Legend's “Again” that comes across as both completely unnecessary and entirely appealing. The lyrics are concise, the music is made up of some of the better elements of today's R&B music (if you can still call it R&B music, what with all of the Auto-Tune and bullshit that falls into that category these days), and the Legend vocal sample isn't intrusive, keeping to itself in the corners of the beat.

Unlike on here, where Legend actually takes a central role. “The Fire” contains the most accessible (and conventional, I suppose) hip hop beat on How I Got Over thus far, but The Roots can do conventional masterfully, so that isn't a detriment in the slightest bit. I imagine that most rap fans may gravitate toward this track first: hard drums have a tendency to spur such behavior in hip hop heads. It isn't a perfect song: although Black Thought still sounds more than proficient, he does come across as a bit bored with the proceedings. Then again, I just prefer to hear him pissed off at something (or somebody), as he is one of the best artists out there when it comes to channeling his rage into a cohesive argument for his greatness. Still, I really liked this track, and its official remix featuring current rap music wunderkind B.o.B. is also pretty interesting; I wonder why it didn't make the final cut.

The least essential musical interlude of the three present on here.

Over an unorthodox musical creation, Black Thought invites two of his friends to straight up fucking spit, easily outshining them (even with a bit of the selective censorship that The Roots traffic in), although Truck North manages to hold his own. Peedi Peedi (the artist formerly known as Peedi Crakk who is now best known for his occasional pot shots at Shawn Carter), however, is still coasting on the goodwill spurred by his cameo on “Get Busy” (from Rising Down), going so far as to reference that particular song three fucking times within his first four bars, so it isn't surprising that his contribution to this posse cut isn't interesting or creative in any way. Oh well. I enjoyed the first two thirds, anyway.

The following song is labeled as a bonus track on How I Got Over.

The use of Auto-Tune on here is a bit discomforting, as its wails and whining sound like a robotic baby in need of its bottle. (Which is the point, I know, but it's still annoying.) Aside from that, “Hustla” sounds like ?uestlove's attempt at a bona fide gangsta rap beat, as it rolls through your hood slowly, probably in a Cadillac of some sort. This doesn't really fit in with the rest of the album (which is why it's listed as a bonus track, naturally), but it could be argued that hustling is an art that The Roots excel at: not for nothing are they still considered the premier hip hop band. Caps off the evening in an interesting fashion, but when presented with the option between spoken word poetry and an actual song, I think you two already know which way I'll lean.

THE LAST WORD: For all of its depressing undertones, How I Got Over ends up being a celebration of consistent entertainment. The Roots, as directed by the duo of ?uestlove and Black Thought as hip hop's answer to the Coen brothers, dig deep and explore life's ills, loneliness, unfortunate circumstances, maturity, politics, and other topics that only realists would give two fucks about discussing, let alone write songs about them. And they succeed, as How I Got Over ultimately leaves the listener with a feeling of hope. While I don't believe it to be the best album they've ever recorded (that has yet to be decided by me, although I'm sure you two have your own set opinions), it is far and away a project that can be listened to from start to finish without skipping a single track, which is rare in our chosen genre. However, this isn't for every audience: those of you who feel that rap music is dictated by how the radio sounds will fucking hate this, and Jimmy Fallon's fans will find themselves dumbfounded, at least before they gravitate toward “Dear God 2.0” and proclaim it to be their most favoritest song ever (due to the Monsters of Folk's inclusion). But for those of you two who care about the music and all of its variable transgressions, The Roots, with one of the most rewarding and eclectic back catalogs in the genre, may well be hip hop's answer to Radiohead: I halfway expect them to start giving their shit away once their Def Jam contract is fulfilled. In short, How I Got Over was really good, much more so than Rising Down, although the final bonus track does seem a bit ill-fitting, like a sweater with one arm longer than the other and the neck hole missing. Definitely a good antidote to the bullshit tandem that was Thank Me Later and Recovery.


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  1. just bought this today after listening to it bootleg for the last 2 days. might really be my favorite roots album. VERY listenable. A big
    ROAR for the production~

  2. apparently it's 7.99 at best buy, too.

  3. This shit was nice, for real. Good review.

  4. I was waitin for you to get the review on for this!

    I completely agree, I can listen to this from start to finish without skipping which is such a plus considering Recovery was just...eh. Not their greatest songs, but this was such a pleasant experience just listening to these guys do their thing instead of trying to impress everybody.

    I'd recommend this to any Roots fan, I don't think you'll be disappointed at all. I'm already on my 10th full spin without skips, and I'm not getting bored.

  5. A.R. MarksJune 25, 2010

    Hmmmmmm....I dunno Max. On the first listen all I got was six songs I really liked. I really want to like this project more, but.......

    I think I was expecting something different after the (awesome, imo) tandem that were Game Theory and Rising Down--yes, I love Rising Down--and felt this would be sort of an end to a trilogy, and while it sort of was, as a bookend it seems anticlimactic.

    Giving it a 2nd listen though, based on your almost unheard of overwhelmingly positive review here, you sly so-and-so.

  6. Muddy_DonutsJune 25, 2010

    About to buy this one, I love The Roots.
    Hopefully Big Boi's album is good too

  7. AnonymousJune 25, 2010

    i think this is a great album, really enjoyed it start to finish

  8. I liked your last comment about "Thank Me Later" and "Recovery." The Roots are back, man!

  9. By the way, Black Thought performed the lyrics of "Doin' It Again" on BET earlier this year. It was dope then, and it's dope now - even though he's doin it again. Here's the link - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q9BB09uoAlk

  10. I really like the album, I just wish they d have experimented and use variatons, bridges etc a bit more. They re not making much of their advantage of being a real band, the album could ve been made with just an mpc aswell.

  11. Nice review Max, you hit it right on the head on this one. I couldn't agree with you more about Rising Down being very underwhelming (and I actually went back and listened to it last week to see if my opinion would change). I will say Dear God 2.0 is a very good song but IMO Walk Alone is classic material (I love Questlove's double kick every eight bars and the dark piano sprinkled through out the beat, which Thought destroys...and P.O.R.N. was pretty impressive too). Only thing I disagree with you on is the Tunnel Vision interlude. I love that beat and I'm still mad Thought didn't sink his teeth into that one...that would of been stellar. All in all, great album, worthy every penny of the $7.99 Best Buy sold it to me for.

  12. Good point made by FLX...but the album was still dope. I've also concluded, after repeated spins this weekend, that the hustla bonus song suck. Where's my review of Revolutions Per Minute or Distant Relatives? What's up with that Max?

  13. Interesting review. This album did not disappoint me in the least bit. Its very chill and minimalistic at times. The baby sound on the bonus track tends to be annoying;is it me or this taken from the Major Lazer - "Baby"?