One of the more head scratching moments in music in the past couple of years was when it was announced that the hip-hop band the Roots were going to be the house band for Jimmy Fallon’s late night show.
Once that was declared, nearly everyone thought one of two things: 1) ?uestlove and Black Thought must have committed some kind of unnamed crime and were sentenced to talk show prison or 2) Jimmy Fallon went all Robert Johnson and sold himself to the devil in order to grab such a talented band.
Regardless of the reason though, the Roots ignored the critics and treated their new gig as a way to showcase their talents. And that they have as the hip-hop band is an integral reason why the former Saturday Night Live performer’s show is watchable and yes, sometimes entertaining.
With that in mind, there was much talk as to whether the Roots would become boring and complacent in regard to releasing new music. Well, that discussion has now been rendered mute because the band has just released the excellent How I Got Over which just might be the group’s most best album since 2002’s Phrenology.
How I Got Over continues a bit in the vein of the Roots’ past two albums, 2006’s Game Theory and 2008’s Rising Down, as it is topical and ruminative. Unlike those two underrated releases however, How I Got Over is more personal and subdued.
Good examples of this are the tracks “Dear God 2.0” and “The Fire.” The first of these tunes is the Roots’ much discussed reexamination of a song first penned by the indie band Monsters of Folk. This standout features guest Jim James’ vocals separated by some fantastic rhymes by Black Thought in which the rapper mentions a litany of problems that face society nowadays.
Interestingly, he then asks God something that many people think about at some time in their lives–”Why is the world ugly when you made it your image?”
While that track is a bit downcast, “The Fire” is more upbeat and hopeful. Backed by a slamming beat and a fine vocal turn by John Legend, Black Thought raps how important it is to survive through desperate times. “My soul starts to grow colder than the North Pole/I try to focus on the hole where the torch goes,” he says at one point but then adds, “I realize I’m supposed to reach for the skies/Never let somebody try to tell you otherwise.”
Despite these fine lyrical showcases, How I Got Over is such a triumph because the Roots continue with their winning combination of funk, soul, jazz, and hip-hop. The first half of the album is particularly strong with its more neo-soul vibe. “Walk Alone” is a top notch track with its slow groove and additional vocals by Dice Raw. (And you can’t ignore Black Thought’s inspired name checking of Sierra Leone, Robert Guillaume, and Juilliard.)
Best of all, however, is the title track which is hands down the best Roots jam since “The Seed 2.0.” The song is so infectious it is near impossible not to start dancing and singing its chorus of “Out in the streets, where I grew up/First thing they teach you, is not to give a fuck.”
As for How I Got Over’s second half, there is little letdown as ?uestlove and his mates continue with their inspired choice of guests, either live or as samples. Indie singer Joanna Newsom is heard on the fine “Right On” and John Legend cameos again on the sublime “Doing It Again.”
If there is any criticism against this album, it can only be found on the last two tracks “Web 20/20” and “Hustla.” The songs themselves aren’t bad at all though. In fact, they are the most intriguing sound-wise with their bizarre instrumentation and beats. However, they really don’t fit with the rest of the album’s exceptional flow.
That flow is another reason why How I Got Over has to be considered one of the band’s best. It feels like the album is one fantastic song thanks to its stellar production. Not only that, but the group sounds so tight on this release that there is no question that the Roots are the best hip-hop band alive today. (As if there was any question about that before.)
Author – Todd Sikorski