Being a hip-hop band was novel enough to earn The Roots notice in the ’90s, and that very foundation gave their early output some of the chillest vibes in hip-hop. But with more time spent on the road, more outside collaboration and a broader scope, their live band dynamic became a jumping off point for a more progressive and experimental approach. Slowly but surely, they began to incorporate more rock elements into their eclectic and funky sound, from outstanding single “The Seed 2.0,” to Game Theory‘s “Atonement,” which even found the group dropping a Radiohead sample. By taking on the initially dubious job of being Jimmy Fallon’s house band, that playful and eclectic dynamic only broadened, as ?uestlove & Co. participated in jam sessions with such unlikely acts as The Dirty Projectors.
Funny thing, then, that the first thing one hears on The Roots’ newest effort How I Got Over is the three-part harmony of Dirty Projectors Angel Deradoorian, Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle. In fact, were it not for the appearance of their omnipresent Rhodes piano, one might be hard pressed to even identify this as a Roots track. And this isn’t an isolated case, either; Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Monsters of Folk makes an appearance on a re-working of the latter’s “Dear God” (titled “Dear God 2.0”). Furthermore, the group builds “Right On” from a sample of Joanna Newsom’s “The Book of Right On.” And while Fashawn may have beaten them to the punch on building a song from a Newsom sample, The Roots one-up the young emcee by making a characteristically more elaborate and funky affair.
In the interest of curtailing any wrong impressions, however, I state the following: this is not The Roots’ “indie rock” album. Certainly not any more so than Rising Down or Game Theory, which, for their money, each had their share of rock elements as well. No matter who happens to be invited along for the ride, The Roots are ultimately always in control, and How I Got Over is no exception. The ominous vibes and fierce delivery from Black Thought remain at the front of the band’s tight and powerful arrangements, which burn with the white hot fire that began with 2002’s Phrenology and have only risen higher and more vibrant since.
With the sharp, icy jab of minor key piano that opens “Walk Alone,” the album’s first, fully fleshed-out song, a dark tone is set for the songs that follow with Black Thought’s conflicted lament, “the devil want me as-is/ but God, he wants more.” Still, for such a shadowy beginning, the song is remarkably catchy, particularly during its earworm chorus. “Dear God 2.0” only continues that contrast of catchy melody with sorry-state-of-the-union verses from Black Thought: “air quality so foul, I gotta try to breathe/ endangered species and we’re running out of trees.” The primary difference here is James, whose ethereal counterpoint to Thought’s grounded lyrics make for an elegant balance.
Seasoned and wise frontman that Black Thought is, The Roots’ best songs have always been those in which the band most strongly flexed their instrumental muscle, and those moments are frequent and many on How I Got Over. “Radio Daze” is a stellar jam, built on deep and spindly basslines, while the title track lays down some psychedelic soul a la Curtis Mayfield, and as such, is entirely irresistible. “Doin’ It Again” and “The Fire” deliver back-to-back doses of John Legend, the former in typical Roots rave-up fashion, while the latter struts with a mid-tempo groove. And then of course there’s “Right On,” which is the funkiest Joanna Newsom will ever sound.
As with The Roots previous few albums, How I Got Over presents a fairly amusing paradox. There’s an serious-minded tone to Black Thought’s verses, even when he kills it with wordplay like “got immunized for both flus, I’m still sick.” And yet, The Roots can lay down a groove like no other, offering a bit more of a hedonistic contrast to otherwise sobering truths and with a more eclectic palate than ever. Perhaps it’s not always a celebration, but How I Got Over is nonetheless an unforgettable party.
Video: “How I Got Over”
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.