September 6, 2011

The Roots - Phrenology (November 26, 2002)

Thanks to that Reader Review of Game Theory that I ran last month, I was inspired to at least make some further headway on the overall catalog for the Philly-based hip hop band The Roots, mainly because, even though I'm happy for the fact that they seem to be earning a steady paycheck and are providing for their families and whatever, I would still rather not think of them solsly as the house band for NBC's Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.  

Phrenology is the crew's fifth full-length project, released on Geffen/MCA Records in 2002, three years after their previous magnum opus Things Fall Apart.  It followed both The Legendary EP and a live project, The Roots Come Alive, so it isn't as though the crew was taking a nap or anything.  It didn't sell nearly as well as their previous work, and commercially, it was deemed rather inaccessible, but critics seemed to love it anyway, as they are prone to do whenever The Roots release another album.

Phrenology is notable mainly for what was happening behind the scenes with the group at the time.  Since its inception, the two main rappers in the crew were Black Thought and Malik B: although you two are clearly more familiar with the work of Thought (by design), Malik B still played a vital role, reinforcing his boy's vocals when necessary and chiming in to add his two cents whenever the occasion called.  He was always considered a major component in what made The Roots the band they are today, so when he left the group in 1999, it was damn near heartbreaking.  When everyone found out that he left the group because he essentially chose drugs over music, it was mind-numbing.

Black Thought, the sole remaining rapper, and ?uestlove, the drummer-slash-leader, elected to keep the party going with their crew, but their minds were clearly in a fog, and most of Phrenology reflects that sense of unease that they felt during the recording process.  Not only were they dealing with the departure of a friend who chose a potentially deadly addiction over them (a subject tackled on the album's centerpiece, "Water"), they were also unhappy with their label situation, as they felt that the MCA machine that backed them at Geffen wasn't working as hard as it should have to promote their work.  

As a result, Phrenology is a Roots album that I don't really ever listen to, save for one specific song that will become obvious as this write-up continues.

(Tracks 81-86 were included on the limited edition two-disc version of The Roots Come Alive, hence the weird time jump between Things Fall Apart and Phrenology. I may get to that live album eventually, but for now I feel it's best to focus on the task at hand.)

Ursula Rucker's spoken-word introduction, which was inching towards pretention even with the few words that were actually spoken, is interrupted to bring you...

...this uncompromising missive, curiously produced by DJ Scratch instead of the usual suspects. Black Thought attacks the microphone and delivers bars chock-full of venom, lyrically decimating his enemies while subtly explaining that Phrenology will be nowhere near as commercial as Things Fall Apart. The man succeeds, as well: “Rock You” is really fucking good, and it kicks off the project well. The only real complaint I have is that there doesn't seem to be much in the way of participation from the rest of the Roots Crew: “Rock You” may as well be just your typical rap song featuring Tariq Trotter. Still, it sounds fucking balls-out rocking, so I wasn't that miffed.

89. !!!!!!!
A quick punk interlude-slash-song that signifies, once again, that Phrenology won't be your average rap album. A bit unnecessary and extremely jarring, but still not entirely awful.

After the pulse-pounding “Rock You” and the genre-defying previous track, The Roots present listeners with...well, with this shit. “Sacrifice” brings the momentum of Phrenology to a standstill with its focus on imparting a lesson to the audience (anything worth fighting for will demand some amount of sacrifice), wasting a perfectly decent pre-Timbaland Nelly Furtado performance in the process. Black Thought's lyrics are decent enough, but the instrumental is too fucking boring to fit in with the rest of the tracks on the first half of the project. I'm starting to remember why I don't really listen to most of Phrenology anymore.

The Roots Crew snap back to their senses for this heavy-hitting collaboration with underground stalwart Talib Kweli, who sounds excited to have finally earned a spot alongside the group (as his vocals were deleted from Things Fall Apart's “Double Trouble” to make more room for his Black Star partner Mos Def), which translates into an entertaining performance. Thought blows his shit out of the water easily, with a verse that carries all of the titular heat that he is allegedly rolling with, and the chorus is so lackadaisical that you can't help but laugh (especially as it features it features the first singing performance of Dice Raw, who doesn't (officially) appear anywhere else on Phrenology), This shit was pretty fucking great, but the outro at the end (which leads into the next song) wasn't necessary.

Ursula Rucker, who oddly did not retain the end slot on Phrenology, returns for another interlude, one which lists the names of two hundred and thirty rappers and groups (according to the liner notes, anyway) within the span of fifty-nine seconds. The real question is: how in the fuck did Justin Warfield score the final shout-out?

This “Apache”-sampling masterpiece showcases Black Thought at his finest (which is weird, considering that his entire performance is an homage to Kool G Rap and DJ Polo's “Men At Work”), as he flows effortlessly while moving the crowd, even when singing on the hook. The song that appears on Phrenology is pretty awesome, but the original version, which was earmarked for Thought's Masterpiece Theater solo album which never materialized, featured a Beatles sample (specifically “Hey Bulldog”) that proved impossible to clear: that earlier effort, which is otherwise exactly the same as what listeners actually ended up with, can be found pretty easily on the Interweb and is worth the price of admission. I love both incarnations of “Thought @ Work” for different reasons, but the one consistent point between the two is that the track is fucking amazing.

Phrenology's second single is a remake of a Cody ChesnuTT song (obviously called “The Seed”), with the original artist thrown in for good measure. It's amazing just how good Thought can sound over nearly any type of instrumental, especially this rock-tinged piece, and their invited guest sounds so good alongside his new collaborators that it is kind of sad that nothing further ever came of this pairing (although there have been rumors of new tracks floating around, none of them have ever made the final cut of any Roots album). Oh well, at least he scored a starring role on a Roots album with a fairly profane and heartfelt performance.

I never cared much for “Break You Off”, Phrenology's first single: in fact, its mere existence made me briefly reconsider my blind love for the Roots Crew. It doesn't help that the album version of this track is over seven minutes long, which seems all sorts of redundant. Black Thought uses the R&B-lite instrumental to woo a woman away from her man, and special guest star Musiq Soulchild (who, according to ?uestlove's extensive liner notes, was far from their first choice for the slot) sings about it as though stealing someone's girlfriend is the most natural action in the world. “Break You Off” wears out its welcome well before the beat takes an odd drum-n-bass turn toward the end. This song is proof that some of the group's impulses need to be regulated just a tiny bit more.

Phrenology's ten-minute-plus centerpiece is another example of excess on the part of The Roots, but in this case it all makes sense, sort of: after hearing Black Thought witness his friend and rhyme partner Malik B. choose drugs over music, ?uestlove uses the remaining two-thirds of the track to score the uncertainty of how the band felt about this fucked-up turn of events. A bit too experimental for its own good, perhaps, but it draws you in and refuses to give you room to breathe. My wife loved this song the first time she heard it while driving, so it isn't inaccessible, but I guarantee that it will turn off most of the Roots Crew's fans, not because of its length, but mainly because the feelings put on display are so unflinching that it may simply make them uncomfortable: Thought sounds so mournful that you will need to be reminded that Malik B. hasn't passed away. It should be noted that “Water” is an extended version of yet another track intended for Masterpiece Theater, broken into three separate movements, the first (conveniently titled “The First Movement”) being the original Tahir-produced song, and the other two instrumental segments (“The Abyss” and “The Drowning”) handled by The Grand Wizzards.

On any other album, “Water” would have called it a day, but The Roots still have much more to say. In spite of the pleasant-sounding but still really fucking weird interpolation of “Breakout” from The Swingout Singers used as a chorus, “Quills” is a simple banger featuring Black Thought giving every other rapper in the industry a run for their money, thereby helping the audience understand why Phrenology was originally supposed to be his solo album in the first place. His bars aren't especially memorable, but the track remains consistently entertaining, right up until the goofy interlude that ends the song on an off note.

This track is the recipient of the goofiest comment in ?uestlove's liner notes: after listening to it, Nelly Furtado (who does not appear on here, mind you) said that it sounded like walking barefoot through a sleazy alleyway in Thailand. Personally, I don't hear that distinction: “Pussy Galore” just sounds like a suck-ass song that hides its message behind an intentionally vulgar facade (in this case, the title), not unlike pretty much every single episode of South Park. Former Roots member Scott Storch lends the team an instrumental that isn't nearly as grimy as it wishes it could be, and Black Thought is left to sweep up all of the pieces. Groan.

Black Thought and Jill Scott reunite to deliver a follow-up to their original cut of Things Fall Apart's “You Got Me” (before Scott was replaced by Erykah Badu at the label's behest), and this track sounds lust as dull and out-of-place as that Grammy Award-winning song did. It isn't technically a bad song, but it sounds as though Thought was panicking and elected at the eleventh hour to record a song for the ladies, failing to understand that any woman listening to The Roots already likes him for the battle rapper that he is. There are genuine feelings revealed on “Complexity”, but there is no real reason for you two to actually try to find them or anything.

The concluding spoken word slot on Phrenology is occupied by Amiri Baraka, who fills over six minutes of space with a reading that would severely try my fucking patience had it not been for the music lying underneath, which helped things move along. Still, this is spoken-word poetry, and any longtime reader will know how I already feel about that.

Phrenology contains two blank data tracks, and then the bonus songs kick in.

After a lot of dead air, this hidden track, which also appeared on the Soundbombing III compilation, finally appears, and when compared to that other Roots/Talib Kweli collaboration found on Phrenology, it fails miserably, as it sounds much more conventional than “Rolling With Heat” (although I will admit that it is interesting that both of their collaborations casually reference guns in their titles). At least Black Thought sounds invested in his work, anyway. But of the Roots had to pilfer their back catalog for a bonus track to give their fans, there were surely some better alternatives in the vault.

A needle scratches the record, and suddenly “Rhymes and Ammo” becomes “Thirsty”, which flips Phrenology's script entirely even though the two songs share the same audio track. I'm fairly certain that this electro-tinged dance song, which barely features Black Thought, was taken from a different source, but I couldn't find any information about it online, and since it's technically a bonus track, the liner notes don't seem to be aware of its existence. The song itself was incredibly slight and probably wouldn't even warrant a first listen, let alone repeat offenses, had it not been for a brief appearance from who I believe to be former Roots member Rahzel, whose human beat-boxing elevates the track into the realm of a curiosity piece. Still, what a weird way to end the album.

Actually, I take that last statement back: Phrenology actually ends with yet another blank data track, but there are no surprises hidden afterward.

FINAL THOUGHTS: The Roots set out to record an anti-Things Fall Apart with Phrenology, and to that end they were very successful, even though a lot of this album is ridiculously hard to give two fucks about. In fact, it's damn near impenetrable, and aside from some selections from the first half, it sure as fuck isn't very accessible. Black Thought, ?uestlove, and company experiment with the very idea of what a hip hop album is supposed to sound like, mixing elements together that shouldn't really mesh, and for the most part, they really don't. There are some fantastic tracks on Phrenology, but their sporadic appearances are bookended by a low budget indie film-level of pretention, which I gratefully accept for the deep “Water” but not for the rest of this shit. I give credit to The Roots for refusing to sit on their laurels and for actually challenging the audience, but on Phrenology, they overstepped their boundaries and only barely recover. It's pretty hard to recommend Phrenology to anybody, including actual Roots fans.

BUY OR BURN? While there are some excellent songs on Phrenology, it only deserves a burn, as the majority of it will collect metaphorical dust on your hard drive. Nice try, Roots Crew, but “Thought @ Work”, while great, isn't a strong enough track to elevate the entire fucking project.

BEST TRACKS: “Thought @ Work”; “Water”; “Rock You”; “Rolling With Heat”




  1. They also did a version of "Friday"

    These guys were dissing Nas back in the day. Think about that.

  2. There are definitely some certified bangers on here and for the most part, they are amazing. The rest of the album does indeed sucks balls, though. Oh well!

  3. djbosscrewwreckaSeptember 06, 2011

    Good conclusion - there are a few bangers, but enough pretentiousness to push the album into a chore. That spoken word shit is unacceptable.
    I think you're wrong about "Sacrifice" though.

  4. @Illyrian Prince - Yes, but that gets a pass because of Stephen Colbert. Also, it was the result of raising money for charity or something random like that.

  5. Awww, NAH... I KNOW this motherfucker didn't just diss Phrenology!

    I'm kidding, though I did enjoy Phrenology a little more than you, Max. My conclusion is essentially the same as yours though: some incredible tracks (and I don't want to understate that) sandwiched between some experimental mediocrity. Frankly, I'm just relieved that you didn't hate on 'Thought @ Work', which is the very epitome of Roots goodness. And 'Rock You' is also a monster (despite the lazy and uninspired chorus), even though, as you mentioned, it is really just a solo Thought performance. Also, 'The Seed (2.0)' - phenomenal.

    Man, you're on fire right now. G Rap, then the Roots? Don't spoil us too much, lest P Captain rears his ugly head again to ejaculate his perpetually unwanted opinion all over the Comments section.

  6. Like most Roots fans, this and Tipping Point are about the only Roots albums I never, ever enjoyed for more than one or two tracks tops. Organix, to me, counts only as a demo.

    So bleeeeegh.

  7. I liked Something in the Way of Things. Oh well.

  8. I've been waiting on this review cause I heard that it's like a Black Thought solo album, like you mentioned in the header notes. I hope his solo is better than this. Anyways, Kendrick Lamar's mixtape OD (Overly Dedicated) deserves a review in my opinion. I like it better than Section 80 but I need to give that album another spin.

  9. Max what about Lord Finesse reviews??
    Its been requested for years!