he current (but definitely not final) lineup of The Roots contains charter members MC Black Thought, drummer ?uestlove, combine these two with beatboxer Scratch, keyboardist Scott Storch, bassist Leonard Hubbard, keyboardist Kamal Gray, and guitarist Ben Kenney showing up to lend their unique talents and you find out what makes the Roots so distinctive. They are truly a hip-hop BAND. They don’t sound like a band with a rapper (see: Rap/Rock), they sound like a folk group with an infusion of hip-hop. Many of their songs sound like live versions of a song that we may consider pure hip-hop, while others show their influences, from 70’s rock to funk music. This is all due to ?uestlove, who not only plays the drums but arranges all of the tracks. In essence, ?uest acts a producer, but he focuses on his individual strength, drumming, choosing only to direct and put together all of the rest of the group’s work. He is the best in the game at arrangement, producing tracks for D’Angelo, Jill Scott, Bilal and Common. But enough about the group, what about Phrenology, the new album? Let’s start with the lyrics.
Many fans of The Roots don’t know that Black Thought is the only MC of the group’s lineup. His status as the Root’s lone rhyme slinger have hurt him in the past, as the group’s set up has overshadowed some of the fine lyrical treats that Black Thought has bestowed upon us. The true attraction to most is the music, the reason The Roots appeal to so many non hip-hop fans. But Phrenology proves exactly what hip-hop heads in the know have known for years: Black Thought reigns supreme. His work on the Kool G Rap re-imagining “Thought at Work” is a great example. Thought goes away from his previous work, playing the part of an MC in the late 80s, illustrating his typical braggadocio and swagger with lines like “Spit hot flames that'll harm your vocal / Spit Thought’s name I'm a bomb your local / neighborness, for a ten mile radius / Well, every ghetto craving this new anthem / My brain unstable and I'm just too handsome..”. He is in top form throughout the whole album, moving between different emotions (introspective on “Water” and intimidating on “Rock You”). Over the course of the whole album he trips up rarely, allowing no one to question his lyrical prowess throughout. Flawless and energetic, Black Thought makes Phrenology work even without the musical backing.
Of course, again, the true focus of the record is the “band” part of the “hip-hop band”. And while the music is really, really good, it’s doesn’t overshadow as much as it has in the past. Those unfamiliar with the group may be turned off by the first song, “Rock You”, with a backbeat featuring a shotgun blast. They might not even make it into later tracks that are more Roots-esque such as the Jill Scott assisted “Complexity”. And that’s probably because each song has something different than what we’re used to, a small bit of funk here, a Motown influence there. It is especially perplexing to hear ?uestlove’s three-act play inspired by the mark that Pink Floyd left on young psyche, “Water”. But it all seems to work- and all of it leads up to the album’s best track, “The Seed (2.0)”. Even though it features black singers and MCs, it is a rock song, featuring a little bit of funk and just a very little bit of hip-hop. The guitars in the song have a very “in-your-face” approach, and the song, a raunchy bit about impregnating a female, has a catchy hook that stays with listeners for days.
Not everything is perfect on Phrenology. It is cursed by two tracks that are a little bit less than mediocre, “Quills” and “Pussy Galore”. The first track is saved by Thought’s rhymes, but they aren’t enough to save the second one. Neither one has an especially exciting beat, and both are blessed with what can only be described as lame hooks. It’s obvious that with “Pussy Galore” at least, that the group was going against the corner they had painted themselves into by proving they didn’t have to be conscious. And that’s perfectly fine, but it can be done way better than this. “Rock You” proved this, as did Thought’s appearance on “Geurilla Monsoon Rap” off of Talib Kweli’s album Quality. They’re both okay songs, but they don’t belong on classic records.
And that is really the only problem with Phrenology, which refers to the study of analyzing character by the shape of the skull, that went out of fashion about 200 years ago. It’s a damn good album and a worthy addition to anyone’s collection, but it isn’t the place to start if one is just getting into The Roots. Mainstream and casual fans will remember them best for Things Fall Apart, but probably only hardcore fans will be able to see the value and dedication that much of Phrenology holds.
Reviewed by: Brett Berliner
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01