mmediately following Things Fall Apart’s surprise success, the Roots and their Native-Tongues-on-HGH Okayplayer aesthetic began to flourish, organizing and mobilizing the hopes and dreams of a nation of aspiring boho-rap-backpackers. Rawkus! Soundbombing! Okayplayer! The Holy Grails of all those kids who truly believed, believed, with all their earnest little hearts that if there was any justice in this sick, sick world Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Pharoahe Monch, Common, and Black Thought would be the unanimous and undisputed top five dead or alive. If skills sold, truth be told …
And then things kinda fell apart. With the exception of a live album and a few soundtrack contributions, from early 1999 to late 2002 the Roots released almost no new music. And, soon after, the Okayplayer aesthetic began to crumble: Mos Def started acting … a lot. Reflection Eternal was kind of a drag. Rawkus went belly-up. Common lost his mind. Then you had to convince yourself you liked the Dilated Peoples. Then D’Angelo fell off the face of the earth so spectacularly maybe the world really is flat. Then the omnipresent ?uestlove, despite possessing the pop sensibility of a Styrofoam cup, evolved into what many consider the most insufferably pretentious music figure of the last ten years.
And then something else happened: all those Okayplayers suddenly realized Jay-Z was actually kind of fantastic. As were the Neptunes. And Cam’ron. And later even 50. All of which served to ignite a violent overcorrection, however welcome a respite it was, that has lead to the online championing of Lil’ Wayne, Cam, and the Clipse you see today. Scratch a cynic, you’ll find a disappointed idealist; scratch a coke-rap fiend, you’ll likely find a disappointed Roots fan.
Reductive? Perhaps. Inaccurate? Doubtful.
It certainly didn’t help that when the Roots finally got around to releasing Phrenology it triggered one of the most pervasive “meh”s ever, living up to none of its pre-hype, completely devoid of any of the group’s celebrated live energy. And it really didn’t help when they released 2004’s The Tipping Point—an album as lifeless, schizophrenic and unfocused as its predecessor.
And, oddly, in the face of all this Game Theory is an absolute triumph. Seriously. By revisiting the relentless tenacity and claustrophobic desperation of Illadelph Halflife, the Roots have delivered their finest work since, well, Illadelph Halflife.
Sonically, Game Theory is the record they’ve been trying to make since Things Fall Apart. There’s a gritty energy to Game Theory, a focus and sonic scope that’s as far away from the lush Fender Rhodes infested neo-soul as one could possibly hope for. Guitars and strings swell around cascading keyboards, all the while ?uestlove’s drums (finally) pop with an urgency he’s never quite been able capture before.
Black Thought, meanwhile, remains the prototypical underrated rapper of his time, a real MC whose mastery of rap’s technical skills—flow, breath control, word choice—have lately been overshadowed by the growing (valid) sentiment he has little to no discernible personality or charisma. On Game Theory, however, Thought sounds completely rejuvenated, hungry for the first time in a decade, and no longer rhyming for the sake of rhyming.
On “In the Music,” he spits, “They say the city make a dark impression / The youth just lost and they want direction / But they don't get the police, they get the protection / And walk around with heat like they’re Charlton Heston.” Thought’s voice, reliable as ever, commands attention throughout the record as he interacts with the rest of the Roots’ ambitious soundscapes. Game Theory also marks the return of Malik B. and Dice Raw and their presence, particularly Dice’s verse on the frantic “Here I Come,” gives Black a much needed breather.
Elsewhere, the Roots get playful (“Baby”), political (“False Media), and Beck-y (“Living in the New World”). They’re still a little preachy about what is and isn’t “the real” (“Don’t Feel Right”), but still willing to let Peedi Peedi rip the shit out of “Long Time Comin.”
And while the loss of J. Dilla serves as explicit inspiration for the record’s eight-minute sonic exploration, “Can’t Stop This,” Game Theory’s loose playing, but painstaking attention to atmosphere is the true Jay-Dee tribute; the way the beat on “Take it There” switches up, releasing surging keyboards and a foreboding bass reminiscent of Illadelph’s “Panic”; the way the chorus swells in the verse of “Clock With No Hands”; the fearless Radiohead sample on “Atonement”; even the way the hi-hats stay open on “Don’t Feel Right.” It’s all standard issue Dilla and the Roots finally capture its essence to perfection.
The Roots have talked a lot of shit since Things Fall Apart without backing it up. They’ve seen their base drop out beneath them and their diehards move on to whiter and powdery pastures. Their misguided late 90s backpacker’s dream may be over, but with Game Theory, the Roots have finally delivered on nearly every once-broken promise.
Reviewed by: Barry Schwartz
Reviewed on: 2006-08-29