Sometime between A Tribe Called Quest’s last good album and Jay-Z’s first last album of his career (comeback just announced, unsurprisingly), mainstream hip-hop eclipsed the underground. It really was only a matter of time until the backpackers would find themselves treading water in a canal of “keeping it real,” and neither Rawkus nor Definitive Jux could keep up a steady enough flow to overcome the rising tide of mediocrity. Meanwhile, by some strange and unlikely turn of events, it ends up being the Outkasts and the Kanyes that push the genre into the future. Oh, there was hope for Talib Kweli, particularly with a Kanye West produced single in “Get By,” but damned if I can even remember what his last one sounded like. And Mos Def had one motherfucker of a debut, but…well, that’s about it. MF Doom, El-P, Blackalicious, Edan—they come in spurts, keeping the life raft handy and even braving oncoming rapids with finesse and flair. But in times like these, what this tepid, turgid flood needs is a new Roots album.
I know what you’re thinking: we already got a couple, and they sucked. Sure, Phrenology had potential, but it fizzled under the weight of its own pretense. “The Seed” had a good groove, but you can only do so much with promiscuity that Prince hasn’t already done…better. Two years pass since The Tipping Point, and the demand for The Roots we know exists out there becomes, to quote a Tricky song, a matter of utmost urgency.
They must have heard the call way out in Illadelph, and in turn, released Game Theory, The Roots’ best album since before Mos Def became a thespian, just in time. And from the get go, it appears that this isn’t a carefree party album. Peep the cover—on top of a gritty, sepia typewriter script, the image of a man hanging is depicted over a field of charcoal. After a brief intro/homage to fallen comrade J. Dilla, “False Media” sets the tone with a spoken word state of affairs from guest Wadud Ahmad: “Pilgrims, slaves, Indians, Mexicans, it looks real fucked up for your next of kin.” Later on, the topic of crime and race in Philadelphia arise on “In the Music,” the album’s increasingly ominous mood made the more serious with the verse “it wasn’t really that ill until the start of crack/now it’s a body caught every night on the almanac” on the furious title track. That Black Thought’s lyrics are backed with insistent organ riffs and hard-hitting beats makes for an even more intense atmosphere on this standout.
Game Theory is fraught with seriousness, but The Roots’ strengths don’t stop at thought-provoking lyrics and biting social commentary. On Game Theory, The Roots lay down some of their hardest grooves to date, such as on the title track, the solid first single “Don’t Feel Right” and the cheating turned crime of passion tale “Baby,” which features a chilling organ that, interestingly enough, recalls Wilco’s “How to Fight Loneliness.” “Here I Come” practically assaults the listener with its heavy synth sounds and gut-punch rhythms, Black Thought’s rapid-fire lyrical assault more aggressive than ever. On tracks like “Livin’ in a New World,” which, yeah, sounds like Beck, and “Long Time,” a track with a super-funky groove similar to Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” the group even sounds like they’re having more fun than ever. And by now, “Atonement” is the stuff of legend, sampling none other than Radiohead, their “You and Whose Army” laying down a trippy, smoke-filled backing for Thought’s crystal-clear head held high verse.
At 13 tracks and around 47 minutes in length, Game Theory provides a surprisingly lean, bullshit-free offering—their most focused to date. Every track is an absolute triumph, every beat solid, every groove impeccable and every word poignant. Game Theory sets a new and almost absurdly high standard for hip-hop; good luck to anyone who tries to follow such a brilliant act.
Talib Kweli – Quality
Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Kanye West – Late Registration
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.