The Roots: “How I Got Over”

The Bush years were tough on almost everyone, but The Roots seemed to take it particularly hard. They released a groove-oriented, relatively dance-able album called The Tipping Point in 2004, but since then everything they’ve recorded has been jet-black, fueled by righteous indignation, militant political anger, and a suffocating sense of dread. Game Theory, in 2006, was a revised political manifesto in the Public Enemy model, a Black Planet for a new generation; its vision was so bleak and so brutally vast that it spilled over into another album, the even angrier Rising Down.

But things have gotten better, both politically and professionally, and The Roots are loosening up. How I Got Over is their first album of the Obama years but also their first since scoring their gig on Jimmy Fallon, a brilliant and probably fairly lucrative career move that is alluded to only once on the new album. Fans wondered how the Late Night shift would affect the group’s studio output, and thankfully the answer is not too much, at least not directly: Smartly, they’ve envisioned this new record in the greater context of hip-hop past and present, and within the context of The Roots’ back catalog– not in the context of their gig with NBC.

Which is to say, the album never feels like a spin-off of “Freestylin’ with the Roots,” the Fallon segment where the band gets to show off their incredible chops by writing off-the-cuff songs in styles selected by the host. In some ways, it’s almost the opposite: The album does showcase their amazing musicianship, but not in the flashy terms of extended solos or boundless eclecticism. Rather, this is a triumph– and that’s not at all hyperbole– of focus, clarity, and restraint. There are some brief instrumental interludes and a couple of bonus tracks, but the meat of the album is an astonishing slim nine songs, all of them fairly direct and fat-free. The record is sequenced as a statement, a unified piece of music with distinct acts and interludes serving to mark the shifts in focus, themes unfolding over the duration and coming to a stirring conclusion. There’s virtually no dead space here, with the songs melting into one another. In other words, it’s all of a piece. It’s a capitol-A Album that’s meant to be listened to in one sitting.

Other things have changed, too. It is, without any question or hesitation on my part, the best sounding Roots album ever, and the story there is in how ?uestlove got over his control issues. The group’s virtuoso drummer and bandleader is in a league of his own, and his gifts are unimpeachable; that said, his perfectionist instincts have hampered the last few Roots albums more and more, resulting in a sound that has sometimes been too stuffy or studied. Here he gave control over to some outside engineers, and the sound of the recording is warm, live, spontaneous, and clear. Of course, it was probably ?uest’s idea to record it live on the floor, and the band chemistry is half of what makes the album so inviting.

Certainly, it isn’t as harsh as Rising Down, nor as claustrophobic as Game Theory; every Roots album has an instrument that seems to define it, and here it’s an acoustic piano– warm and organic, not at all like the steely synths of the last couple of albums, or even the languid jazz tones of their earlier work. The whole album seems somehow to spring forth from that piano sound; ?uest’s drumming has never had this kind of raw crispness to it, but if his beats are that give the album both its heartbeat and its hip-hop, the hooks here are often on the soulful, bluesy tip, sung by singers of beautifully human grit and gravitas. And then there’s the title song– ?uestlove’s insistent beat is enveloped by what sounds like a church organ, and MC Black Thought switches from rhyming to a wonderfully soulful sung performance. Jimmy Fallon’s “Freestylin'” bit affords the Roots a chance to branch out; this is the sound of The Roots digging deep.

And in more ways than one. Everything about the album– its level of focus, its unified construction, its acoustic warmth– indicate a level of soul-searching, and Black Thought delivers. How I Got Over is a statement every bit as much as Game Theory was, but it’s not what you’d call a political album; it’s an intently personal one, an introspective one, an album of self-reckoning, anxiety colliding with romance, of hard-fought, streetwise wisdom that’s tough and sensitive all at once. It’s an album about coming to a crossroads, and about growing older. Game Theory belonged to a rich tradition of political rap; How I Got Over is basically unprecedented in its exploration, by a group of such longevity, of what it means to grow up and move on.

It’s a journey, and it begins with “Walk Alone,” a song of solitude and struggle that smartly takes thematic cues from the blues and casts them in existential terms here; a climax comes early in an updated version of Monsters of Folk‘s “Dear God,” less a cover than a re-imagining that riffs on the original Jim James vocal hook but lets it collide with a beastly, robust rap from Black Though. It’s spooky and soulful, but what lingers is its theological urgency: Black Thought doesn’t hold back in his pleading for answers from the Almighty, and the effect is soul-stirring stuff, righteous rap that balances anger and compassion and frames the whole record as something devastatingly serious and profound.

There is a lot of taking stock of the self here, particularly on “Now or Never,” a quieter song that starts with whispering desperation but ends with the flint of hope. That segues into the title cut, which the band debuted over a year ago on Late Night. It takes on new meaning in the context of the full album: It’s the most political song here, but its references to street life are less about political action on a grand scale than on a personal one, a battle cry against apathy and a stone rejection of street cynicism. And that’s the end of the album’s first half; a brief instrumental break ushers in the light-on-its-feet, flute-adorned soul of “The Day,” a song that ?uestlove tweeted to be a “feel good classic in the making.” It isn’t hard to see why: It’s an honest but optimistic song about trying, about courage, about hope, about facing a new day dead on. It’s followed by a couple of rousing numbers that answer the band’s cries for passion and perseverance with a voice of triumph: “Right On” is self-confident (and based around a Joanna Newsom sample; would you believe that ?uest makes her sound as funky as Erykah Badu?), but “Doin’ It Again,” based around a John Legend tune, is almost braggado. Black Thought is in battle-rap mode here, but in the context of How I Got Over, it’s less empty street fronting and more the well-deserved anthem of a survivor– a champion.

And he is a champion. Black Thought takes a beating in some circles for lacking charisma as an MC, an accusation that has less to do with his own lack of flare and more to do with so many other rappers relying on gimmicks. Here he is arguably more magnetic than ever before, and it’s on the back of a performance that’s soulful and smart, verbally nimble but always with grit and humanity in his voice. He earns a champion’s song, and he gets one in “The Fire,” which The Roots wrote for the Olympics ceremony and which concludes the album proper with a final nod to resiliance. It’s a song about passion, and it comes with a beat that’s genuinely rousing– a call to action, ending an album of introspection.

Well, sort of: Technically, there are two more songs, but they’re wisely sectioned off by another interlude and kept out of the main beef of the record, not because they’re bad but because they don’t fit, musically or lyrically; they’re essentially hard-hitting, testosterone-fueled cuts for the group (?uest and Though in particular) to indulge in their old-school hip-hop aggression. That they’re here at all only proves that The Roots know how to have a good time; that they’re edited out of the album proper shows how smart they’ve become with their record-making. And this from a group that has long been one of the world’s coolest bands, but has never been captured particularly well on record. That changes here: How I Got Over is a bold and beautiful record. It’s a new standard for smart, organic hip-hop, and an unprecedented achievement in its introspection and its sophistication.  Far from dulling them, Late Night seems to have honed their instincts and brough them focus. They’ve scaled back some of the darkness of their recent output but lost none of the seriousness with which they take what they do, and they’ve come up with their most killer– and meaningful– album yet.

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