July 4, 2010

A Reader's Gut Reaction: The Roots - How I Got Over (June 22, 2010)

(For today's Reader Review, friend of the blog A.R. Marks returns with a counterpoint to my ridiculously positive (for me, anyway) write-up for How I Got Over, the ninth album from The Roots. It's always good to hear an opposing opinion. Make sure you leave some comments below.)

The Roots are (relatively) widely known as sonic heirs to the anticlimax that was A Tribe Called Quest and Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, contemporaries of Nas, Jay-Z and Common (back when they were lauded as the jazzy new heroes of hip hop), mentors to the movements of Black Star and Slum Village, and the OGs on the scene that provided the framework for artists like Wale, Kanye West, Little Brother and Black Milk. Although the band's lineup has mutated consistently since the group's inception - its founders, MC Black Thought and drummer ?uestlove, being the only two constants - it has become readily apparent that The Roots have either predated or outlasted each and every act they've been associated with, giving them an almost unique history of longevity, owing to the overall quality of their music.

Out of all the group's main ingredients, their firm attitude toward experimentation is undoubtedly what keeps them sounding fresh. Sure, they started out with free-form, improvisational jazz blanketed over the most basic hip-hop structure, which led to my personal favorite album of theirs, 1996's illadelph halflife, and another fan favorite, 1999's Things Fall Apart. Yes, their attempts to move away from this sub-genre (the heavily-disdained The Tipping Point and the downright confusing Phrenology) became the group's equivalent of 808's & Heartbreak and Kingdom Come, to name two recent critical failures both readers of the blog will at least be moderately familiar with. But let's be honest: who wants to hear a group do the same exact thing for twenty years?

That's right: everybody.

But, failing that, hip-hop fans have been known to grudgingly accept good, if unfamiliar, music instead. Which brings us to the present-day. In 2006, The Roots signed with Def Jam Records, releasing a dark, brooding, uncompromising gem of an album called Game Theory right out the gate. The project spun them in a whole new direction, awash in ominous atmospherics and synth sounds; initially billed as then-President Jay-Z's tossed-off bone to the artsy rap crowd (its debilitating lack of promotion cemented the notion in many a fan's mind that maybe he wasn't the executive he claimed to be), the album was both critically acclaimed and applauded through the roof and all the way to the moon by those who actually heard it. It set the stage for Rising Down, the logical extension of Game Theory (but with more outrage and intimidation) in both sound and sentiment, this time almost entirely devoid of support from the label. Soon, their latest album, How I Got Over, was announced, then pushed back almost a full year for re-recording until it was, according to ?uestlove, perfect; no longer having to please their evil executive overlords (I read this as “Now that Shawn Carter is no longer with the label”) and given the crippling depression of their last two releases in a row, does How I Got Over enlighten, justify, threaten or jam like its predecessors?

Let's find out.

An album intro; although textural and pleasant, barely anything happens here musically.

Making use of a piano chord set to “slow burn,” Truck North initiates the album proper with a proficient verse that nonetheless sounds like a paint-by-numbers Black Thought offering, which tends to be my standard complaint about the man, especially given his rather stiff, elementary structure. P.O.R.N., however, I have always been a fan of, even with Max's constant complaints about his name; the upstart has always impressed me, and I'm glad to hear him on the track, flowing well with a unique delivery and an emotional verse that brings out the soul in the beat beautifully. Dice Raw's hook is a little sloppy but definitely has something to it, and Thought enters the proceedings fiercely with a verse cut from the cloth of his G. Rap/Big Daddy Kane-inspired best.

This song's slower and, if possible, even more melancholy than “Walk Alone,” but no less melodic or catchy, specifically when Thought's verse drops and the drums kick up the momentum a little. The hook feels contrived, but the soft piano/synth/harp concoction makes up for it in spades; at the same time, Black Thought spits some of his most introspective and revealing verses to date, which is saying something.

Picking up speed, thankfully, this song keeps the piano base but adds knocking drums and a thumping bass for underground favorite Blu to add his own brand of melancholia. His verse is pretty good; although I'm not a big fan, I can't deny this. However, P.O.R.N. comes through and utterly outshines the former thanks to his spirited delivery and vivid multisyllabic verse. Following the formula thus far, Dice gives a catchy hook—though he manages to sound totally different here—and Thought comes through to wrap things up nicely.

Switching things up, Thought kicks off this track after Dice Raw's hook, a similarly off-kilter offering to the “Walk Alone”. Somewhat more upbeat, the beat here is more subtle, offering little during the first listen but revealing more layers upon further investigation. Little Brother's Phonte actually kicks a verse here, thankfully; I had thought he had gone the way of AndrĂ© 3000, Cee-Lo, and Mos Def, singing because he knew he was so goddamn good on the mic his fans would hate him for it. Dice actually enters and intrigues with a verse of his own, sounding refreshed and outstripping his former contributions to various Roots albums, although his worth is measured much more easily in production skills than lyrical feats these days.

When Dice Raw “left” The Roots in the mid-1990s, he never had anywhere else to go, and The Rooots survived the bump without any setbacks. Honestly, why is he still not considered part of the group? He's been on every single goddamn song so far, and co-produced just about every motherfucking track on How I Got Over, not to mention having his name and voice slapped all over every single Roots album there ever has been. So what the fuck? Aside from that, this single is extremely nice, from Dice and Thought's singing to the fantastic one-verse wonder Thought lays down over the uptempo banger of a beat. Two thumbs.

A short interlude of the kind that I've never been into from any of the Roots albums.

Never heard of Patty Crash, and to be honest, her overly-expressive voice sound like she's trying too hard and is reminiscent of the type of indie rock that I run from. But since this isn't indie rock, I guess I can stand it, especially since it's short. Blu returns, once again kicking a decent verse (It's not that I don't want to give him credit, fans; he does have technical skill, but I think his lyrics just seem to lack character, or sincerity, or something). Thought follows, unleashing a line about the girl of his dreams giving him “Einstein,” a euphemism as humorous as it is clever. I will say even though I don't really get into Blu, seeing him lined up alongside Thought and Phonte was a pleasant surprise for some reason. Like a trifecta of joint-smoking power, if you'll excuse my Pineapple Express reference.

Joanna Newsome, whoever that is, has a voice that is annoying as fuck. The beat here is pretty minimalist, and while Thought's verse is nice and the sound effects comprising the substance of the backdrop are intriguing, Ms. Newsome's hook is too damn distracting. To my mind, she should be called Joanna Nuisance. Also, whoever STS is fucks up the song by being equally as annoying as Ms. Nuisance (see, it works!).

Initially, John Legend's (sampled) vocals are a little off-key, but much, much less abrasive than the singer from the last joint, so it's not like I remotely give a fuck. Aside from that, the beat reads like a livelier version of “Walk Alone”, with drums that are much harder and more engaging. However, to my disappointment, Thought reuses both his verses from the infamous BET cypher with Mos Def and Eminem, and sadly, this version features a slowed-down delivery that sounds watered-down and ill-fitting of the beat. Additionally, we don't get the satisfaction of hearing Thought and Em rip shit up back to back. B-minus.

The album version is just Thought, but since I like the remix so much, I'll slip it in here instead as a product of wishful thinking and my penchant for rearranging albums to fit my tastes. I like Bobby Ray when he's not going out of his way to not sound like a hip hop “artist”, so his verse here easily impresses. Thought technically outshines his guest, but he sounds not so much bored, as Max asserted, but distracted. Still, given the simple but appealing beat and Mr. Legend's fitting vocals, the track works. I'm just not sure I'd want to hear it without the espresso shot that is Bobby Ray. (The remix can be found pretty easily on the Interweb if you have three seconds of spare time.)

Another interlude, but this one is pretty annoying.

While I like Thought, and I can listen to Truck North and Peedi, the ADHD-suffering beat to this song is just way too goddamn annoying to sit through.

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

The use of Auto-Tune here over a baby's cries is super-creepy and, since it's the plodding beat's only attempt at a melody, is annoying as fuck. I can't listen to more than 27 seconds of the song, so this portion of the review is over.

THE LAST WORD: How I Got Over is not what I was expecting from a continuation/end to what is, thus far, The Roots' Def Jam trilogy. Of course, ?uestlove and company delight in yanking the rug of expectations out from underneath the feet of their fans, so I'm not genuinely shocked. At first I was a little bit thrown by their heavy leaning toward indie rock, but hey, if it works, it works; my only complaints are that the group maybe adheres a little too strictly to the formula, using beats and hooks that start to run together after a while. Still, it's an album, and sometimes that factor is good for the project to maintain an aspect of cohesion. It's just that, with as many guests as there are, it seems too diluted to be, as ?uestlove has described, a “celebration of The Roots.” Some of the songs sound too simple to be wholesale reworkings of existing music, and ?uest, Dice and Thought seem to lose their focus after the title track—at 42 minutes, total, this album simply can't afford that.

-A.R. Marks

(Agree? Disagree? Do you want to throw a brick at your computer screen? After you buy a new monitor, leave your thoughts below, and for the sake of completion, here's a link to my own write-up.)


  1. AnonymousJuly 04, 2010

    i thought this was a very strong and consistent album... the bonus track sucked though

  2. AnonymousJuly 04, 2010

    "An album intro; although textural and pleasant, barely anything happens here musically."

    get. the. fuck. outta. here.

    (clicks exit box on this bullshit review)

    don't follow this review, max's is more on point. or buy the album and enjoy the legendary to yourself. thank you

  3. To each their own. I thought this album's strength was its consistent sound. On balance, a lot of the themes were repetitive, and some of the guest appearances were whatever. I appreciate the different view though, as you pointed out some weaknesses that I overlooked before.

  4. Alex Trebek: "Blu returns, once again kicking a decent verse (It's not that I don't want to give him credit, fans; he does have technical skill, but I think his lyrics just seem to lack character, or sincerity, or something)"

    Me: "What is...energy"

    Trebek: That is correct. Choose another category.

  5. djbosscrewwreckaJuly 04, 2010

    Appreciate both of the balanced reviews of this album so far, this one and Max's. Both making a lot of good points.
    This album is consistent, and the Roots seem to have perfected a relatively laid-back song style incorporating hooks, choruses, musicianship and some nice verses. As well as tastefully selected guests.
    I don't like it though. I know this is a quality, well-crafted album, but for me it feels more like The Roots are in cruise control after being a session band, having perfected their formula. I didn't get the introspective, moodiness vibe. And a lot of the hooks sound irritating.
    Black thought keeps his verses on topic and they're all good, but he never seems to really rip it. Black thought is definitely top ten. I think this has been said so many times by so many people that we might as well just accept that he'll always be underrated (through under exposure) and leave it at that.

  6. lol joanna newsome is awesome

    her last album is one of my favs from this year

  7. AnonymousJuly 08, 2010

    I thought Truck North’s verse on Walk Alone was pretty stand-out
    Sounds more like ?uestlove himself on Radio Daze than Dice Raw.

    Blu lyrics ain’t got character or sincerity??
    If nothing else sincerity is all Blu’s got, sucka.
    Fock you for dissing Joanna Newsom.
    Right On’s the best song of the album.

    Frigg this review.

  8. A.R. MarksAugust 08, 2010

    I understand y'all all want to defend Ms. Nuisance either because of her album (which I've never even heard of) or because the song itself is good;

    let me ask you though:

    Does she MAKE the track?

    Oh, well then.