(While I'm still working on the back catalog of seminal hip hop band The Roots, frequent contributor A.R. Marks has decided to skip ahead and provide his thoughts on their seventh album (and first for their current label home Def Jam Records), Game Theory. Leave your comments for him below.)
The Roots have been around pretty much forever. These guys started up in 1987 under the name The Square Roots, which, coincidentally (prepare to feel old, 80's babies), is the same exact year that this reviewer was born. It took them until 1993 to release an album, entitled Organix, a mishmash of progressive jazz noise interspersed with scat-styled exclamations from the group's then current emcee lineup of Black Thought and Malik B.
I mention all of this only to draw incongruous and, possibly, shocking contrasts between the group as it was then and how The Roots look today (or, at least, how they looked in 2006, when the album I'm writing about was released). I present to you, the reader, that no other group or act in the history of hip hop has seen such an extended period of activity, relevance, and popularity. Sure, they never achieved the quasi-messianic status of The Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac, the Bill Gates-esque stature of Jay-Z, or the nearly-all-encompassing popularity of Kanye West and Eminem...but consider this: their debut album dropped when A Tribe Called Quest was considered fucking cutting-edge, and their most recent offering for 2010 (How I Got Over) finally, finally saw the group penetrate somewhat into pop culture consciousness, and despite their constant touring schedule they've never once gone more than three years without releasing an album during that entire span of time.
The group's lineup has been continually skewed, and in 2006 their DJ, Scratch (not to be confused with the producer DJ Scratch) departed. Furthermore, bassist Ben Kenney had left the group to join, of all bands, Incubus (approximately five years after they had reached the height of their fleeting popularity), leaving the band with – gasp - only one bassist, Leonard Hub. Their seventh album, Game Theory, was their first on the newly-Jay-Z-helmed Def Jam Records, and it saw the sort-of-return of long lost crew member Malik B., who sources say had found a mysterious board game in a construction site, unwittingly rolled a turn, and ended up imprisoned within the game's jungle-esque alternate reality until such time as ?uestlove and Black Thought completed the session and freed him a full seven years later, just in time for the recording of this project.
1. DILLTASTIC VOL. WON(DERFUL)
In deference to the recently-deceased super-producer J. Dilla, who ?uestlove has openly admitted had input on every last beat the drummer produced from the group's inception until his death that year, the group kicks off their album with an appropriately pretentious, empty introduction that features a synthesizer augmented with boring filters. Running at about fifty-four seconds, this track is just long enough to be worth skipping the hell over.
2. FALSE MEDIA (FEAT. WADUD AHMAD)
Thankfully, the second track picks things up with speed. This real introduction to Game Theory utilizes crisp drums (the hallmark of using a real drummer, rather than some drum machine bullshit), some trippy effects and synthesizers, and a refrain culled from a Chuck D sample that serves as this album's mission statement. Black Thought follows this with a terrific, claustrophobic verse aimed at bringing you into the group's paranoia in real time.
3. GAME THEORY (FEAT. MALIK B.)
The title track fades in over winding guitars and dynamic horns laid in for effect, before jumping to full momentum with Black Thought wrecking both heaven and hell. Then comes the moment Roots fans were waiting for: the return of Malik B.! Although he kicks a pretty impressive verse, his contribution comes off as sort of superfluous, as the two emcees lack the chemistry that they had shared back when Malik was still an official part of the group.
4. DON'T FEEL RIGHT (FEAT. MAIMOUNA YOUSSEF)
“Game Theory” feeds directly into “Don't Feel Right,” a dark, rolling concoction of melancholy piano chords, wailing vocal samples and the album's thus-far-trademarked combination of thumping bass and drums, while Thought continues to spit vivid, technically and structurally impressive, back-against-the-wall raps about freedoms being stolen and unseen oppressors watching the every move of the masses.
5. IN THE MUSIC (FEAT. MALIK B.)
Dialing down the tempo for a moment, The Roots deliver a haunting, hypnotic guitar arrangement suspended over trashcan drums by a building, shifting bassline and Thought's sneering indictment of the powers that be. After a fluid chorus (provided by what sounds like an uncredited Dice Raw), complete with trippy, echo-y filters, Malik B. makes his second contribution. Over the slower tempo, Malik provides a slightly better verse; on this track, he and Thought seem to be on a much similar wavelength.
6. TAKE IT THERE (FEAT. WADUD AHMAD)
The group coasts on its mesmerizing vibe, building a winding guitar backdrop for Thought to continue expressing his issues with modern society...before ?uest and co. give it an adrenaline shot, morphing the song into a threatening piano-and-drum-driven affair. Two thumbs.
7. BABY (FEAT. JOHN-JOHN)
A delectable, bluesy beat constructed out of muted a guitar and an elastic bassline, “Baby” is the album's centerpiece. Its mutating, drawn-out sound provides Thought with a platform to spit the mournful story of a girl in thrall to a cheating man who, just to make him a real bastard, constantly rags on her for liking hip hop.
8. HERE I COME (FEAT. DICE RAW & MALIK B.)
Kicking things up a few notches, The Roots provide some dynamic, uptempo drums and a cinematic synth line underscored by hard guitars. Dice and Malik provide quotable verses with laudable flows, but Black Thought really steals the show here, spitting one of the best verses on an album full of great lyrical work.
9. LONG TIME (FEAT. PEEDI CRAKK & BUNNY SIGLER)
The first even vaguely upbeat track on Game Theory, this jawn makes use of synthesizers, but in a decidedly more soulful and optimistic manner than anything the group had previously attempted. Astute listeners will note that this track is the cornerstone to the sound of The Roots' latest effort (as of this writing), How I Got Over. Guest star Peedi Crakk shows enthusiasm, but it's almost unavoidable to wish that The Roots had recruited one of his State Property cohorts instead, such as Freeway or Beanie Sigel. (Or both of them, even. Would that really be too much to ask? The Roots, Free, and Beans are all from Philly, they were all signed to the same general label (Def Jam) at one point, and two of them are already in a group together, for fuck's sake.)
10. LIVIN' IN A NEW WORLD (FEAT. JOHN-JOHN)
This track continues in the same uplifted vein of the previous song, utilizing subdued singing, a fluid, relaxed guitar line and lighthearted flutes thrown in for good measure, although Thought rants about a perceived tyranny here as well, providing a contrast. Short, but good.
11. CLOCK WITH NO HANDS (FEAT. MERCEDES MARTINEZ)
The Roots make a move toward the introspective, laying out a jazzy throwback to the days of illadelph halflife with tinkling synthesizer keys, a subtle saxophone buried low in the mix, and cymbal-and-snare-driven jazz drumming. Thought brings his A-game, laying bare his feelings in a way the normally stoic MC rarely does. One wonders if, when he spits the lines “My brother back in rehab / just had another relapse / within hisself it's like he been fightin' an inner Jihad / Tellin' me ain't nobody true when they pretend to be that”, he's talking about the same latent crew member who made his de facto return on this album, Malik B.
12. ATONEMENT (FEAT. JACK DAVEY)
Slowing things down even more, the group concocts a decidedly unorthodox backdrop using accordions, wailing vocal samples, violins, and a shifting tempo that doesn't quite match up with any one genre, but feels fitting in the context of Game Theory. Thought creates his own version of Jay-Z's “Regrets”, which saw Shawn Carter lamenting and coming to terms with some of his - say it with me now - regrets. The emcee does a commendable job of flowing over the awkward drums, and as always his wordplay impresses, but he still sounds somewhat out of his comfort zone.
13. CAN'T STOP THIS
Kicking off with a message from ?uestlove heaping more praise on J. Dilla, The Roots bring the album to a close with a tribute to the producer that is also the last beat the producer did with aforementioned drummer/producer ?uest. It bears the unmistakable hallmarks of Dilla's soulful, organic eccentricity, and coincides most closely with the work Kanye West put in on Common's Finding Forever, which was itself a tribute to J. Dilla and the sound he represented. Thought comes candid, making up for his previous discomfort by unleashing a flow with pinpoint accuracy, laced with definitive, determined lyrics. Halfway through, however, the track mutates into an overindulgence-fest; while hearing the praises heaped upon Dilla was probably gratifying to fans who felt the loss of a pioneer, the fact that it goes on for four-and-a-half-minutes, coupled with the difficulty in hearing the words through filters, the lack of context as to who is speaking, and the pretentious “trippy” sound effects laid underneath quickly destroy any interest.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Game Theory is a curious, fascinating effort from The Roots, one which I referred to in another review as a “dark gem of an album”, probably the best way I could describe its sound and its hold over me. Being one of the only albums I've consistently played since its release date (okay, technically its leak date), it's one of the rare projects that can carry different undertones depending on whether it is played during the day, cloudy or clear, or at nighttime. Needless to say I strongly recommend the project: for all its dark exploration and shifting tones, it never strays from its path, and stays focused at a tight thirteen tracks. Considering the group's critical difficulties in the post-bling era, big business, big sales label environment dominated by Nelly and Chingy (remember them?), Game Theory comes off as both a rebirth and a declaration of determination by the longest-running group in hip hop.
BUY OR BURN? Definitely a buy.
BEST TRACKS: “In the Music”; “Here I Come”; “Clock With No Hands”; “False Media”; “Baby”; “Take it There”
B-SIDE TO TRACK DOWN: BREAD & BUTTER (FEAT. TRUCK NORTH)
Cut from the American physical release of Game Theory (but included in the UK and Japan, and also on iTunes), The Roots' producers (credits for the song weren't available at the time of this writing) pull out a heavily blues-tinged beat, complete with claps, finger-snaps and a stomping bassline under tight, acoustic blues guitar and some low chanting. Truck North, originally an affiliate of Dice Raw, brings the lead-in verse: his voice sounds fitting for the organic sound of the beat, but his structure (as is always my complaint) is not fluid enough, nor is his flow, although his lyrics are quite enjoyable. After an uncommonly great chorus that fits the beat like a glove, Thought invades and conquers the track with his verse, transforming the song into an indictment for the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina near the end. Definitely worth the six seconds you'll use up Googling it.
(Questions? Comments? Concerns? Leave your thoughts below.)