A live Roots show can take many forms, but no two are ever the same. At any moment, they might perform an old classic from Organix or Do You Want More?, hold an hour-long improv jam session filled with incredible solos, or play tongue-in-cheek covers of popular hits (I once saw Kamal break out “Oochie Wally Wally” on the keys at a 1999 Worcester, Mass. show). The band also backed up Jay-Z on his unplugged performance on MTV. The Roots’ arrangement of Jay’s beats allowed him to shine and actually made many of his songs better than the original versions.
Phrenology, their new album and fifth studio LP, is a testament to the versatility that is so central to the success of their grueling touring schedule. The Roots are the most unique and original group in hip-hop and Phrenology shows that the band is not afraid to branch out and explore their creativity.
While Phrenology is highly variable musically, Black Thought is the constant, on point with powerful, precise and profound lyrics throughout. Take his lyrical postulations about using sex to manipulate on “Pussy Galore.” “Desire and lust could make a man kill / Or jump off the bridge cuffed to a motherfuckin’ anvil / So it’s promoted like it’s all ya’ll know / Keep a nigga under the spell you under control / I seen it make people slit their wrist / Weakness / Pussy make a spy say secrets / But what for / ‘Cause sex is a law / Many a empire rise and fall / From the squares to the players to the pimps to the whores / To big checks that never would’ve been endorsed / I sit back and just peep things / Nine outta 10 it’s the same song / Only the beat change/…”
The hooks are simple and concise but still enjoyable, so the verses hold your attention. Roots fans will also notice the absence of Malik B. on the mic, an absence that would have been noticed if not for Thought’s lyricism. Phrenology features many other guest artists, including Nelly Furtado, Talib Kweli, Musiq and Jill Scott. The final track is a provocative poem by the highly political New Jersey Poet Laureate Amiri Baraka. Two other notable tracks are “The Seed (2.0),” featuring rocker Cody ChesnuTT’s soulful vocals, and “Water,” a three movement song that begins as a high energy tale about the band’s struggles and travels towards success and morphs into half jam session, half acid trip.
The album is an experimental collection. I was a little worried when I heard the first cut, “Rock You,” and its hard, edgy sound, afraid that the Roots had compromised their use of live instrumentation for a more radio- and sales-friendly style. But a full listen revealed that they have stuck to their guns, only embellishing their sound with newly added guitarist Ben Kenney and lots of percussion. Some of the rhythms are clearly influenced from several other musical genres, including rock, soul, drum-and-bass and even hardcore, while the break beats keep the album rooted in hip-hop. Overall, Phrenology is wonderfully mixed and produced and there is very good attention to detail. Definitely pick this one up.