With the embrace of trap music among white hip-hop fans, the backlash against traditionally “white” black hip-hop artists set in, and the Roots were probably the biggest casualty. The irony of it all, of course, was that the relationship between black artists such as Talib Kweli and Blackalicious and their relatively white fan base was always complicated to begin with.
Even as they successfully spread the presence of hip-hop into formerly impenetrable indie circles, many artists often commented on the fact that although they seemed to be the only artists concerned with unifying their people through positive music, they were playing to people who had no relation to their focus. So “What They Do” really was about “them,” and not about “us,” as it should have been (or was at least meant to be). Equally ironic was that the initial wave of music-geek-legitimate hip-hop appears to have paved the way for this new, anti-conscious trend. Even acknowledging the increasingly influential anti-rockist movement, it’s hard to imagine as warm a critical reception for Jeezy without the Roots et al. first paving the way for white people (not to mention the second renaissance of Jay-Z, the father of trap, who signed this very band). If critics were trying to convince the world that hip-hop was legitimate in the ’90s by the Roots’ progressive, intelligent live-instrument-backed example, the 2000s have seen critics realize that the world itself is hip-hop, and it is they that must be proved legitimate.
But equally unfair to the realistic picture of the Roots is the concept they are the saviors of hip-hop. Questlove’s uncomfortably mixed collaborations aside, the Roots have amassed a solid discography over the past decade-plus, but their (seeming, perhaps) pretense often overextends their talents, and the myth of their pioneering genre-bending is topped only by Radiohead‘s among current groups. Their last outing, The Tipping Point, was arguably their weakest yet, relying far too much on their then-lone emcee, Black Thought, who has a great flow but whose lyrics have never seemed strong enough to carry a full record. It’s great for both the ears and heart to hear Malik B. back for their seventh album, the impressive Game Theory. Though he only plays a featured role, it’s a pleasure to hear the emcee — whose struggles with drugs were documented on Phrenology‘s brilliant “Water” — back in fine form, most notably on the title song, one of the best offered here.
Where the record stumbles, however, is with the hardest rap-rock tracks, the cloying “In the Music” and the tiresome “Here I Come,” which, despite inspired energy from Questlove on drums, manages to actually sound like changing the radio station. These bits are few and far between, though, especially when strong songs refuse to linger around past their welcome, such as the brief “Livin’ in a New World,” and the soulful, dark, and dangerously close-to-perfect “Atonement” that sounds the most like Dilla on a record dedicated to the late beat-maker.
Game Theory closely resembles the group’s most unusual, and best, record, Phrenology, both in its boldly ambitious nature and its devotion to evolution within the hip-hop community. If Game Theory falls short of that past triumph, it’s because some of the choices here seem misplaced or poorly executed, such as the above mentioned rock hybrids. Still, people all too often expect challenging music to be uniformly brilliant, but ambition is not satisfied only by perfection. Though they were often criticized with their early records for being too safe, the Roots appear to have decided that the key to longevity within the decidedly ADD-riddled hip-hop community is to make records that get people talking. Now that they’ve done it, we can hope their audience will see them in the correct light, the light in which they undoubtedly view Dilla: as musicians, pure and simple. In that light, it doesn’t matter whether their record is the best of the year or whether it sells a million copies. All that matters is that they play music that they love and contribute to the musical dialogue — push things forward, as they say. It’s what keeps the group strong so late in their career, and it’s what should make them perpetually relevant to even the whitest fans of cocaine slinging nationwide.