To say that The Roots have been hip-hop’s most consistently dope act is to do them a disservice. Fact is, the Philly crew has been one of the most consistently dope acts in music PERIOD over the past decade and a half. Despite making slight adjustments to their sound over the years in order to compete in the marketplace, the group’s never made a move that was desperate or ill-advised. Until (unless?) OutKast and the Beastie Boys come back, The Roots look to be the only rap group that has the capability to go into their golden years and become a “legacy” act in the same manner as rock acts like Dylan and Springsteen.
“How I Got Over”, The Roots’ ninth studio album (yes, I’m counting “Organix”), continues this remarkable streak of consistency. Actually, I’d say that “Over” is the band’s most pleasurable effort since 2005’s “The Tipping Point”. The only trait both albums share, however, is that they share atypically (for The Roots) compact running times. While “Tipping Point” featured The Roots (and main rhymer Black Thought) at their most upbeat, “How I Got Over” (titled after an old gospel song) finds Thought at his most thoughtful and pensive.
Kids who are out looking for the latest club jam won’t be pleased with “How I Got Over”-as a matter of fact, it’s likely that they’ll tune out after the first couple of tracks (in somewhat atypical fashion, the album starts off in minor-key fashion and brightens up slightly as it progresses). However, what those people will miss is Black Thought’s razor sharp social, political and personal commentary. In a genre that has increasingly become focused on lyrics that an average person can’t relate to, Tariq’s thoughtful musings resonate with the Everyman who’s just trying to get from one day to the next. It may not be especially danceable (although ?uestlove’s production assures that there is a boom-bap element to every song on the album), but it’s more soulful than anything you’ll be hearing on your local Top 40 radio station.
Alongside the usual Roots associates (Dice Raw, Truck North, Porn-actually, now P.O.R.N., and former Roc soldier Peedi Peedi-only Malik B. is missing in action), there are effective cameos from a wide range of artists. The childlike innocence of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James is a satisfying contrast against Thought’s weary verses on “Dear God 2.0”, indie darling Joanna Newsom provides the chorus for “Right On”, Little Brother’s Phonte makes a couple of cameo appearances, and John Legend comes through twice, both in sampled form (on the triumphant “Doin’ It Again”) and live in the studio (“The Fire” definitely has me amped for the upcoming John Legend/?uestlove collaboration).
What impresses me most after all these years is that The Roots have managed to maintain this level of consistency, and it’s a testament to the fact that these guys don’t pander. While their music has wide appeal, it’s organically soulful and not calculated at all. While the majority of hip-hop acts tend to lose steam as they age, The Roots, like fine wine, are just getting better with time.
(BTW, Roots…come to Boston. Please?)