At the same time they became the biggest band in hip-hop — at least among hippie festivalgoers, who were allowed to feel like they were celebrating diversity by listening to the Roots, and according to a certain former SNL cast member — the Roots were making some of their hardest, least accessible music. It’s hard to imagine a tie-dye-wearing Bonnaroo attendee enjoying the sinister bits of Tipping Point, Game Theory or Rising Down in between the crunchy grooves the Roots plentifully dole out in the live setting. Put it this way: “Don’t Say Nuthin’” isn’t going to end up slotted between a Phish and Dave Matthews Band song on any mixtape anytime soon.
In that respect, the course correction on the group’s ninth album, How I Got Over, was easy to see coming. Gone are the frantic raps, menacing synths, and general hardness of the band’s past three albums. In their place is a mellow approximation of the jazzy, old-school charm of the Roots circa Things Fall Apart. How I Got Over falls short of that classic, but this is the most fun Roots album since 2002’s Phrenology.
In some sense, How I Got Over is the most fan-oriented album in the Roots’ catalog. The band has become the best part of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and its performances and backstage dalliances with indie-rock bands deserve a show more than Jay Leno does. They’re shooting for indie fans’ yearly hip-hop purchase with this one: Amber Coffman, Haley Dekle and Angel Deradoorian of Dirty Projectors open the album with a harmonious sketch, and the album samples Monsters of Folk and Joanna Newsom. But there’s a crucial difference between this kind of indie-baiting and the kind that Jim Jones or Kid Cudi engage in by jumping on hot indie songs of the moment. With the Roots, it all sounds totally natural, not like they’re going out of their way to tie themselves to indie bands. Part of that is the Roots’ indie bonafides, the other part is that the indie sampling tracks are the best here. Black Thought’s swirling verses on “Dear God 2.0” wake the sleepy song original up, and the Joanna Newsom sample, the stellar “Right On,” features a hard-charging Black Thought trading verses with new-ish Roots affiliate STS.
The principle complaint here is the same as it has been for a few albums: Black Thought is hardly given much time to shine, getting only two tracks entirely to himself. (You have to imagine he’s saving up for his allegedly upcoming solo album.) That’s often a problem with the Roots live show — ?uestlove’s musical direction is the real star — and it remains so on wax. Black Thought, who is capable of deep introspection and cutting social commentary (for proof of both, listen to the title track) when he gets the chance, is one of rap’s most underrated MCs. After this, he’ll probably continue to be.
But that concern becomes less prevalent the deeper you delve into the ultimately rewarding How I Got Over. They don’t make rap albums like this anymore. At the very least, you know that the Roots weren’t taking notes from Def Jam to have John Legend on two tracks (he sings on “The Fire” and is sampled on the excellent “Doin’ It Again”) in order to have single bait, or were pressured to include a Neptunes production or had the album shelved when their label was worried about trying to sell it. From conception to completion, the Roots are in a class by themselves, continuing to exist both in hip-hop and at the same time outside of it.