Listen to The Roots' Game Theory on Rhapsody!
By B Getz
After switching record labels and a slew of personal drama and professional woe, Philadelphia's veteran hip-hop band The Roots return with a stellar new record, Game Theory, and a new attitude. Many new voices join familiar ones in an artful album that will leave many heads nodding, and probably more than a few shaking too.
The album opens with a spacey ambience of organs, muted like bells, a passage coined "Dill-tastic (Wonderful)" - a brief nod to the psychedelic Detroit vibe that James Yancey brought to his music. The first proper song is "False Media," a dope cut with a lush soundscape in which inventive drum tracks and handclaps dance around electric pianos with staccato vibes, cymbals galore, and sumptuous strings. The problem with "False Media" is the inexcusably awful chorus, a spoken-word refrain that is so annoying and out of place that it makes one scratch their head (possibly with an afro-pick). Although Black Thought comes correct with a syncopated flow that weaves between the percussion and melodies, the woeful chorus stops this song short of greatness.
The Roots officially announce their arrival on Def Jam with the title track, a joint that begins with a looped tom-fill, plucked guitars, and a lightly sung sample. With a Bomb Squad-esque explosion, The Roots detonate full force. ?uestlove leads with a loose hi-hat and bulbous kick drum; 'Riq Geez dives into some of his patented Philly braggadocio flow. ?uest pushes with hard riddims as Captain Kirk Douglas wails away with distorted guitars in the background. This is the Legendary at their finest, percussion-lead bangers with Thought spittin' the truth. This shit right here is more "Hip-Hop" than 90% of what you hear on the radio today; it's golden-era hip-hop for the new millennium. The drums rumble. There is a cohesiveness evident, a mission at hand. There is so much going on in the track, from the subtle samples, the DJ organ stabs, the driving groove and loose drums, "Game Theory" just about pushes all of the right Roots buttons, with Black Thought at the top of his game. To top it off, "Game Theory" features the official return of Malik B. into the fold, live on arrival with a vicious verse that closes the song. ?uest adeptly puts on the brakes, switches to a tom-beat, and lets Malik reintroduce himself to the world with vigor. The Legendary are back!
The first single follows, "Don't Feel Right," featuring Maimouna Youssef - another hard-knockin' track filled with positively banging drums and percussion flair. ?uest, in discussing the making of Game Theory, stressed that the producers and engineers tweaked the drum mix several times to fully develop the thump that is the pulse of GT, Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson himself mixing the final versions from behind the boards. The extra-effort is realized in the form of punishing drums that rank up there with the finest of Beatminerz bangers. Driving the behemoth beat, the voluminous bottom end is reminiscent of a Roland 808 drum machine, sizeable and streamlined at the same time, with a crackin' snare and slippery hi-hat. Funky clav romps skank around the bridge, and during 'Riq's verses, droning acoustic piano chords yield an emotional quality. Lastly, a fine femme vocal melody lends to spirited sing-along.
Again, the drums and percussion are front-and-center for the walloping sonic orgy that is "In the Music." This is next-level hip-hop right here, with bombastic drums knocking subwoofers toward submission. A Police-like minimalist guitar/synth combo commands this track into the netherworlds of dubbed-out big beat, with atypical Thought verbal dynamics. The sonic theme here is darkness, the music has futuristic sheen a la "Don't Say Nuthin'," but unlike that song, "In the Music" is a focused effort in approach and execution. The excitable chorus, with exaggerated nonsense somewhat sung with sarcasm, is quite opposite the mumblings of "Don't Say Nuthin'." Malik B appears again on "In the Music," his sullen emotive qualities on full display. Despite the generic battle rhymes, Malik is effective in contrasting Thought on this monster track.
At this juncture in the record is the definitive juxtaposition of what exactly The Roots are. In other words, it is here where the band deviates from the driving boom-bap vibe that had permeated the early portion of the record and moves toward tendencies first displayed en masse on Phrenology. The art-rock side of things begins to rear its head in the dark and abstract tones that loom beneath the music. Traces of Pavement and Radiohead appear in production, noise, and ambience. The drums and music detour from straight-ahead hip-hop beats, into unforeseen lands of complex sonic arrangements.
"Take it There" is somewhat of an anomaly on Game Theory. This song begins with a traditional Thought flow, undercut by a percussive thump provided by former cohort Rahzel. Immediately, this song harkens back to the days of Illadelph Halflife. It sounds like The Roots, circa 1997 or so, with a familiar Philadelphia aura carried by minor chords and blue-collar rhyming. A minimalist kick-hi-snare beat pushes Rahzel along, while Thought drops knowledge and boasts. Then Kamal introduces rolling acoustic piano and percussive strikes, and Hub's upright bass lines bounce along, augmented by synth and cymbals. Malik B. drops some jewels, seemingly struggling to spit out all the words and fit them into bars. Altogether, this is a throwback Legendary joint.
That little slice of history is followed by a wonderful departure from any kind of signature sound. "Baby" might be the best, or most complete, song on Game Theory. Playing to the strengths of The Roots band and to the hearts of their fans, ?uest swings and struts along a tom-tom beat deep in the R&B pocket, mixing in hand-claps. Rolling bass lines usher in a gem. 'Riq Geez, wearing his heart on his sleeve, displays a distinct change in flow on "Baby," almost crooning the verses with a sensuality that he has yet to exhibit on record. The lush, dream-like chorus of deep voices during the hook nearly forgives previous songs' chorus woes. This song, though in the tradition of Roots' R&B-type jams, is somewhere between the rock vibe of the Cody Chesnutt collabo "The Seed v2.0" and the time-honored "Break You Off" mold.
"Here I Come" is the posse cut on Game Theory, a rap roundtable of emceeing prowess that echoes such group efforts on past releases. Longtime Roots affiliate Dice-Raw really brings his A-game to the cut, long on boasts, punchlines, and displaying a rarely-seen confidence. The up-tempo track is full of vitality; Dice, Thought, and Malik take turns passing the mic around the cipher and riding the substantial beat with aplomb. Synths and drums lead the way, creating a sizable bottom-end and rhythmic interplay for the trio of Philadelphia mic-wreckers to destroy. It's another in a storied catalogue of dope Legendary Roots Crew posse cuts.
"Long Time" presents electric guitars and bass at the forefront and is a fast-paced song with a layered chorus and a humorous verse from Philadelphia's Rocafella hot-head Peedi Crakk (also known as Peedi Peedi). Thought and Peedi are a fine pairing, definitely opposites, both on the mic and in the real world, but they work well together on this song. Although "Long Time" is one of the weaker tracks on the album, the song will likely lend itself to a rocking workout when performed live in concert.
"New World" would be an anomaly on any Roots record, even Game Theory. Firstly, the hook sounds like it belongs on an album of Beck outtakes, and the music is nearly dreamlike, a la The Flaming Lips. The white-boy vox and minor chords afford the song a college radio appeal, but less-than-memorable rhyming makes the song more-or-less forgettable. I could see this song equally at home on a Giles Peterson mixtape or being played at a Raconteurs' concert intermission. If this is ?uest's attempt at placating the white audience, he should keep it black. This song is mercifully short and signals the beginning of the end.
The remainder of the record is less than exciting. The final two proper songs are rap ballads, not necessarily boring but again a departure from both The Roots norm and the previously established vibe. "Clock With No Hands" is a deep song in terms of 'Riq's content and feeling, and the choice Rhodes and vocal harmonies echo those emotions. The song is dark, with a choice femme vocal from Mercedes Martinez on the chorus and some profound words of wisdom throughout. Both songs feature a prominent vocal on the chorus and showcase Black Thought's introspective rhymes infected with the pervading darkness that fills this album. Okayplayer favorite J*Davey guests on the final song, a track that invokes Portishead, or Bjork, and bears an emotional quality that is becoming a trademark of The Roots color palette. The vibe of this track emulates an almost sensual 1940s vibe, big band grand with slow swinging drums and an ornate orchestration.
Game Theory ends with an eight-minute opus to Dilla, filled with messages from many of the Roots friends and crew that have come to love the man and the producer. His early death hit The Roots' online Okayplayer community hard, and this track sort of serves as a remembrance or eulogy to their fallen friend. It's a tear-jerking exercise in music as a cathartic healing process and a fitting end to an artful album of which Dilla would certainly be proud.
The Roots' Game Theory is available now (release date: Tuesday, August 29th).
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