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The Roots – Phrenology

March 12, 2008

Phrenology
When I consider how far my taste in music has come in the past ten years, there is no genre more testing and unclear than rap. Ten years ago, probably about half of what I listened to was rap, and it was shitty rap. It was the rap that you hear on the radio. I hardly need to say anymore. When I developed a taste for rock music, or really music of any considerable quality, mainstream rap was just about ready to run itself of a cliff and down into the jagged rocks where it is today. For that reason, I declared myself a fan of music, which I did not consider rap a part of.
It took me until recently to realize that there is good rap, and it isn’t in small number. The trick is that finding it isn’t easy. The Roots were the big breakthrough for me, in particular the fantastic jazz-rap album that I can’t reccomend enough, Things Fall Apart. It didn’t occur to me that rap could possibly be as tasteful and sophisticated as it is on that album. It’s follow-up, Phrenology, takes a bit of a step towards the mainstream, but not without their usual roundabout approach, and not without breaking some ground in the process.
The first thing I noticed about Phrenology was the drums. ?uestlove has opted for a more bassey, heavy approach, and his syncopation is more funky. These, days, most mainstream hip hop artists strive to make nothing more than a record that will sell, and to sell, you illegedly have to be able to shake your ass to it. Phrenology is riddled with grooves, but not at the expense of the usual quality of the music. The interesting thing about Things Fall Apart was that its melodicism was just as compelling as its words. Phrenology is a step in both directions. The Roots know how to write hooks with longevity while saying something worth thinking about.
Black Thought’s words take on some issues that would endlessly confuse most of the rappers on the radio. Especially riddling is the inward examination of the objectification of women in the industry with The Seed (2.0), which explores the real, deeply psychological reasons for mindless sex that are pursued on every other rap single. It’s hard to say what the intention really was. It’s possible that it is simply self-indulgence, and that The Roots are on a slippery slope, but considering the awareness of The Roots of their own music, this isn’t likely. The irony is that it probably got radio and club play, and it probably went over most everyone’s heads.
Although The Seed (2.0) might be the radio friendly (at least it’s clean version) launching point, the album’s examination of it’s own genre doesn’t stop there. With WAOK Rollcall, the listener is cleverly presented with a radio commercial that spontaneously lists off rap and hip hop artists worthy of praise. It feels like an endorsement, and yet it barrels into Thought @ Work, the most incendiary hardcore rap track on the album. Black Thought expresses his feelings about his own expression with his memorable line “Fuck getting money for real/get freedom.” It’s hard to say what the hell these guys want, or what they are getting.
It makes no sense that an album that features Nelly Furtado, Jill Scott, and Musiq can be as experimental as it is. The album switches between their signature hardcore rap and easygoing, almost boring R&B with little to no provocation, and it’s surprising that the transformations actually make some sense. Just as often we get a taste of something shocking, namely the ten minute long experimental funk-noise epic Water. Like it’s predecessor, Phrenology ends with a wildly experimental send-off, Something In The Way of Things (In Town) which features a speech by Amiri Baraka. Much like with Return To Innosence Lost, The Roots take a step backward and let someone who has shaped their culture do the talking and the damage. It might be the easy or cowardly way out, but Baraka was the right man to feature, and his words don’t preach so much as they raise questions. In any case, this ending, withstanding the untitled hidden tracks, is very memorable and does Return To Innosence Lost justice.
And I think Phrenology does Things Fall Apart justice too. It never had any chance of being as good as Things Fall Apart, but it doesn’t try to be. It is a forward moving album for The Roots, and they take on a variety of genres that were hinted at lightly with it’s predecessor’s clever subtlety. It probably leans a little too much on radio friendly R&B though. If it came out swinging more like it does with Thought @ Work and Quills, it would be more successful. In any case, the album makes sense in the progression of Roots albums. It is a healthy stylistic blooming from the brilliance that is Things Fall Apart, but it also spells the bands ultimate downfall that would be the next album, the horrible, mainstream burn out The Tipping Point. The Roots have since redeemed themselves with the excellent Game Theory in 2006, but they will still never make an album as good as Things Fall Apart, and doubtfully anything better and more forward moving and compelling than Phrenology.¬†Recommended.

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One comment

  1. Agreed, there is soo much great rap music out there. I love the roots!



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