Music Review: The Roots' Phrenology

Artist: The Roots
Label: MCA

The hip-hop group, The Roots, find themselves in a tenuous position. One can make an argument that hip- hop is in crisis, starved for leadership in a genre in which innovation hardly holds a pulse, searching only for another cookie-cutter hit rather than the next grand invention.

In spite of the norm, purists have high expectations for the Roots crew, expecting nothing less than authenticity and evolution. The only problem is that The Roots have mouths to feed and bills to pay, and, unfortunately, the market tends to reject offerings outside of the hip-hop trinity of money, women, and cars. In most cases, something would have to give, but happily, The Roots’ sixth effort, Phrenology, deftly manages to toe the line, satisfying die hard fans and the mainstream alike.

For most of the album, The Roots remind of us of when it was commonplace for a hip-hop group to mean one or more emcees with a DJ, a time when a credible, art-elevating album was pursued over commercial success. Good news, everyone. Though The Roots did perform on MTV Unplugged with Mr. Materialism himself, Jay-Z, and despite accepting an endorsement deal with Coca Cola, they have not “sold out.” In fact, fans expecting a new take on The Roots’ old style will be pleased that they continue to take steps ahead, standing up for the good in hip hop.

Phrenology picks up where Things Fall Apart, the group’s previous album, left off with hypnotic beats that force involuntary head nodding with cuts like “Water” and “Rolling with Heat”. Fans frustrated with radio’s prevalent trends might be pleasantly surprised to learn that the album also has a distinct rock feel evidenced by pronounced guitar licks sprinkled throughout the record.

In one of the more innovative tracks on the album, “The Seed 2.0”, The Roots takes a departure from previous songs, as they give themselves completely to traditional Rock and Roll and to Cody Chestnutt, an underground guitarist and songwriter of sorts. The addition of Chestnutt (part flower child, part genius) makes for an interesting juxtaposition between Black Thought’s (The Roots lead emcee) flow and Chestnutt’s early Kravitz-like lyrics, both laid over a gritty and grainy traditional two guitar, bass and drum rock backdrop. The song interestingly refers to the renaissance occurring in the world of alternative hip hop among artists like Mos Def and Res who are claiming Rock and Roll to be their own while the community at large seemingly rejects the notion. Using the analogy of a child, Black Thought begins the song:

Knocked up nine months ago/
And what she fittin to have she don’t know/
She wants neo-soul cause hip-hop is old/
She don’t want no Rock and Roll/

The Roots channel through Black Thought. On several tracks, he stakes his claim as one of the preeminent rappers in this era, juicing each word for every drop of meaning, while sending multiple messages as if speaking in code. OnThought at Work, he challenges thug-lite rappers, maintains the traditional battle rap feel mandatory on all hip hop albums, represents Philly, and sends a memorial to the late Aaliyah in a small, neat, but complex package.

Yo here go the rapper of the year/
Year of the rap/
Come from south philly/
Where the hammers are clapped huh (Aa)?
Violate you will answer to black/
You a thug not really/
There’s the answer to that leeya (Liyah)/

Overall, The Roots manage hip hop clich‚s well. Like the appearances previous albums Illadelph Halflife and Things Fall Apart – Phrenology’s guest cameos are subtle yet substantial – making the overall product richer and providing a magnificent departure from the blatant cross branding in which guest appearances are strategically planned, irrespective of chemistry, and built like Frankenstein glued parts to his project, to boost record sales. The guest appearances with the exception of Musiq on “Break you Off”, the mainstream single release, are handled tastefully and add seasoning to the album, which might have been otherwise difficult to accomplish with a guest roster including Jill Scott, Alicia Keys, Nelly Furtado. Nelly Furtado’s appearance on “Sacrifice” is subtle and hardly noticeable, but adds charm to the song in a way that her characteristic staccato singing/rap hybrid does not. Jill Scott’s smooth jazzy contribution “Complexity,” begs for your CD player’s repeat mode, while commanding comparisons to The Roots jazz beginnings. Alicia Keys actually plays the keyboard on “Thought at Work,” all but hiding her presence on the album. Listening to the album, one gets the feeling that the additions not only maintain The Roots artistic integrity but also spark an artistic reaction that make the each recording as great as it is.

The Roots are one of a child’s handful of Hip hop artists or groups that radically change with each album to progress artistically. Each one of The Roots’ records, like Outkast, manifests a revolution upon its first spin, forcing others within the genre to take a hard look at their product and to change it accordingly. Sadly, every album, especially alternative efforts like Phrenology, needs a hit. “Break You Off,” featuring a disconnected cameo by Musiq which has a video with a scantily clad young lady that allows The Roots video to get lost in the sea that is hip hop videos. The “Break You Off” video draws comparisons of watching an old, slower Ali fight a young, spry Larry Holmes – a horrific event that you wished that you would never see happen. Ironically, Phrenology features a song, the title of which I can’t mention in this publication, which speaks to the ubiquity of sexual images in commercial marketing.

While it is pleasing to observe The Roots tackle social issues, which they haven’t traditionally done outside of the spoken word track that usually closes their records, the irony in this regard is stark and disappointing.

Although the video has a nice glossy finish along with a moderately interesting conclusion, it doesn’t spark the contrast against the hip hop video landscape that is rims, rented luxury cars, homes, and women, that we have come to expert Roots video to paint like “Whatheydo,” “Concierto of the Desperado,” and “You GotMe.” This is an admission that they will get to everyone, even The Roots. However, I can’t but wonder they have missed an opportunity to leverage their following to produce something landmark and unconventional (i.e., in the words of Jay-Z, bring MTV to the hood). Sadly, unconventional probably doesn’t get approved by the label, because it doesn’t make money.

Phrenology, outside of the title of The Roots album, refers to the study of the mind through feeling the curves on someone’s skull. Perhaps The Roots’ effort is a symbolic attempt to feel out their own niche and role in the hip hop community while torn between the pressures of being an artist versus being an entertainer in American showbiz.