The Roots have always held a specific niche in our general conscious. First, there was the novelty of a hip hop “band,” a seemingly bizarre choice for a genre tied so closely to the inorganic sounds of sampling records, DJs, and boomboxes. As time moved forward, they became “the best” band in hip hop, which is akin to saying the NFL is the best football league in America. Now, some 23 years since their formation, they release How I Got Over, changing the discussion to greater heights than their genre allows. The Roots have become masters of their craft, using the concept of an album to tell a narrative that begets euphoria out of despair in a matter of, oh, fourteen songs.
We live in a world where the “album” is a diminishing medium of art. Long ago, getting that fresh LP was like obtaining a novel. It was a collection of individual chapters that built to an overall sonic and emotional narrative. The combined tracks from Derek & The Dominoes’ Layla concerned love, heartbreak, and coping with the sickness. Highway 61 Revisited discussed alienation and the separation of people from society at large (and who was to blame for this). Vs. was Pearl Jam’s dissertation on abuse of all kinds: domestic, psychological, and otherwise. Recently we’ve reverted aaallllll the way back to the album as a “best of” collection of singles that happen to have other songs to justify its price tag; merely a grouping of individual songs that happen to be sold in a group.
The Roots, as produced by their drummer and (for lack of a better term) musical director ?uestlove, have progressively used the album form to their advantage. 1999’s Things Fall Apart is a missive for the art of hip hop, throwing down the gauntlet against the supposed “disposable” nature of hip-hop, as outlined in the album’s opening track samples. Over the course of the next 18 tracks, they throw everything at the wall to show as many facets of hip-hop as humanly possible, eschewing a constant idea for an “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” approach. Their follow-up, Phrenology was devised as the “anti-Roots” album, trying to push themselves away from the limiting nature of “hip hop” towards other interesting genres, like rock (“Rock You”), straight-up R&B (“Break You Off’), and catchy pop (“The Seed 2.0”) to give a few examples.
With 2006’s Game Theory, the band crafted one of the darkest, beautifully crafted statements about people in our time, crushed under the weight of national paranoia, a fading economy, and the loss of hope in general. This instant-classic, somewhere between Kid A, There’s A Riot Going On, and It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, was the soundtrack to the heaviest years of American disillusion during the Bush administration. This sentiment was continued on its sonic twin, Rising Down, a sequel in feeling, taking the hurt, loss, and confusion from individuals in Game Theory and expanding it in broader strokes, discussing the world at large and people in great swaths. The album is uniformly dour, almost reveling in its depressive nature, save for “Rising Up,” an uptempo go-go-esque happy romp that closes the album on a high and fits the overall if only because we need some relief.
How I Got Over takes that idea of transformation from one state of mind to its opposite and runs with it as a total, complete album. The record picks up right about where their last two record leave off, as expressed by the opener, “A Peace of Light.” This eerie starter, with its cryptic doo-wop provided by the ladies of The Dirty Projectors, sets the mood well. We’re not quite at rock bottom, but man are we close.
“Walk Alone,” the second song, begins with a vivid strike of piano, an organic sound absent from the synth-heavy, alienated tandem of Game Theory and Rising Down, lets us know how personal, real, and organic the ensuing experience will be. Black Thought, the group’s MC (and one of the greatest to ever grab a mic) is essentially our protagonist through this journey (or, rather, his journey) as he’s the only one on each track throughout the album. And with a chorus, of “I’ve always been on my own / ever since the day I was born / so I don’t mind walking alone,” we can tell he’s not exactly rocking rose-colored glasses.
The album hits rock bottom with the stunning “Dear God 2.0,” borrowing most of the original song (“Dear God,” natch) by Monsters of Folk outright and bringing it into the normal world of “hip hop” about a minute in. Here Thought rat-a-tats a list of grievances to his absentee god. A bit more confrontational than the original song (and this song’s chorus), he takes umbrage with the way things are going, even going so far as to challenge him to fix all of this mess he’s created and why he does nothing to fix it.
The following tracks,”Radio Daze” and “Now or Never,” are those moments where we want to fix ourselves, where we want to improve, make to-do lists and plan out how things are going to go…but we aren’t necessarily sure if we’re going to convince ourselves to actually start the work that goes into a major personal change. Sure, it sounds nice, but do we really have it in us? And if those songs as the question, then the title track is the personal breakthrough. This Curtis Mayfield-inspired number is all uplift, placed in the middle of the record, creating an upkick that ripples throughout the album’s sound and tone. It’s the point where action is taken, where “getting better” becomes tangible and not a faint hope.
Everything gets brighter from here forward. “The Day” feels like a bright, optimistic Sunday morning, where we can seemingly do anything we set our minds to. That momentum builds into the kick of “The Light,” a playful track packed with swagger, such as Black Thought’s lines, “It’s a cold world / I’m not fronting like it isn’t / it’s no time to come up / shorter than a midget.”
By the time we get to John Legend’s two back-to-back contributions, “Doin’ It Again” and “The Fire,” all systems are firing. Thought, without any other contributors on the track, passionately rips through rhymes as the underdog, feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders and relishing the challenge. After half an album of searching for answers in the past, he eagerly looks forward, optimistically saying, “I realize I’m supposed to reach for the skies / never let somebody try to tell you otherwise.” His transformation from “woe is me” to “get out of my way” is completed with the final two tracks: the rawkus “Web 20-20” and the bonus “Hustla.” The latter’s chorus begging the heavens that his children grow up to be hustlas, ostensibly just like daddy himself.
The beauty of this album is trying to reconcile how “Walk Alone” and “Hustla,” could both not only be on the same album, but fit perfectly in that album’s arc. Alone in a vacuum, they sound like two completely divergent tracks from two different groups. The genius of the album is how well earned this transition is, focusing on the journey rather than the destination. The Roots shift tones so easily, so organically, you don’t realize the trip you’ve really been on after the album has closed. As I sit and marvel at the skill involved in creating this piece, and how rarely an album like this comes around, I can only think of a disclaimer: These are trained professionals. Please do not try this at home.