The perfunctory intro from poetess Ursula Rucker gets cut short on The Roots' latest album, Phrenology. Detailing the true elements of hip-hop on the band's previous five albums, the intro is interrupted by something they've had the potential (but maybe not the balls) to create for years: "Rock You." It's a crashing, aggressive rap-rock song that utilizes all the sounds at their disposal, dominated by stop-start synths and an anthemic chorus (a bit of an ode to Freddie Mercury). It shows that it's easier to bring rock to hip-hop rather than vice versa (take note, Linkin Park).
After the rocker, there's a quick cut to a frenetic, drum-pounding punk song titled "!!!" that lasts only 24 seconds. Then comes the psychedelic, whammy bar-exploiting lovers' anthem, "Sacrifice." After that we get the traditional banger "Rolling With Heat," featuring fellow Okayplayer Talib Kweli, that keeps the intensity stirring with rapid verses and a melody that could fry your brain.
So they're finally living up to the hype. In a chaotic, confused, genre-hopping kind of way, The Roots have changed their sound.
While The Roots' debut, Organix, and subsequent releases Do You Want More ?!!!??! and Iladelph Halflife offered true school hip-hop sounds, their keyboard-happy syrupy sound could be a bit of a bore after a few listens. They always promised so much more.
The band's 1999 breakthrough, Things Fall Apart, coasted onto the charts off the strength of a love jam with Erykah Badu, "You Got Me." And that wasn't what The Roots were about at all. They weren't love jammers, they were supreme funksters who came to punch you in the chest with their pulsing beats and Ginsu-sharp rhymes, courtesy of lead MC Black Thought. Longtime fans could not understand why they couldn't translate their powerful live sound into studio gold. Now they have. Phrenology is the epitome of their 15 years together.
The first few songs are intriguing experiments in rock and funk, but they're basically a warm-up for the trifecta that carries the weight of the album.
"Thought @Work" pays homage to hip-hop legends Kool G Rap and DJ Polo, recreating one of their hits as a spacey, jungle-ized hustle. Thought kicks knowledge over the subdued saxophone notes and some furious drum fills: "I'm like Aquaman and Brown Hornet/ I'm like Imhotep but don't flaunt it/ Dog, reintroducing master thespian/ Ho-telling-est, illin-est, emceein'/ Fuck getting money for real, get freedom/ Black on the grind from AM to the PM."
The second, "The Seed 2.0," is another recreation, this time of "The Seed," friend and eccentric singer/songwriter Cody Chesnutt's ode to rock 'n' roll and sex. The garage-quality recording, which includes a flubbed take, is finally true to their live sound. It actually sounds as if they're playing their instruments, not massaging the sound in a studio. And Black Thought has never sounded better. His low-key verses about a woman in search of true soul, coupled with Chesnutt's euphoric chorus, make for the perfect pop song and lead single (we'll get to that later).
The final song of the trio, the epic "Water," initially appears to be a cautionary tale about drugs. But it becomes so much more. The 10-minute opus starts with an infectious hand-clap rhythm. The song's content, seemingly about the alleged drug abuse of Roots lyricist Malik B, who is not featured on the album, is poignant and potent. Thought tells his friend, "Yo, you need to walk straight, master your high/ Son you missin' out on what's passing you by/ I done seen the streets suck a lot of cats dry/ But not you and I my nigga/ We got to get over, over the water."
Midway through the song, after the message is delivered over a scratched records and a heavy bass line, ?uest gets truly experimental. The song transforms into a mélange of Hitchcockian score, running water, fuzzy reception and irregular cymbal crashes. After a break, it again morphs into a Radiohead-inspired mishmash of deafening pianos and distorted guitars, closing out with a slow heartbeat in the midst of a rainstorm. The sound reflects the addled, crippling feeling of drug addiction.
This is the most challenging sound on a hip-hop record since DJ Shadow laced French film scores over violin concertos and healthy bass drums nearly a decade ago. Those three songs represent the band's finest, most mature work.
There are a few missteps here and there, particularly the lead single, "Break You Off," which is sandwiched between the "The Seed" and "Water." It follows up on the formula of their last big hit, grouping the legendary crew with an R&B crooner on the hook. Here we get Musiq doing an adequate job on a pretty boring cut about a woman lured away from her man. Also, Nelly Furtado's yuppity falsetto is basically inaudible and underutilized on "Sacrifice," and the heavy-handed "Something in the Way of Things (in Town)" sounds like a Last Poets revival gone terribly wrong.
But that's not really the point. With Phrenology, The Roots have finally made an album that lives up to their potential. One hopes it's just the first of many.