“You know… nine out of 10 it’s the same song, only the beat changed –” I feel the same way as Black Thought, The Roots’ MC. Hip-hop is a dying breed, falling at the hands of the proverbial materialistic lyrics, four-four time and stolen ’60s samples.
Interestingly enough, The Roots began performing in 1987, right around the dawn of what we now call gangsta rap, and first recorded while on tour in 1993, the same year that “Dre Day” and “Nothing But A G Thang” hit the streets.
But the Roots — six in all — understand the issues facing their genre and address them without compromising their artistic style or seeming too high and mighty. Phrenology, the band’s fifth studio album, lives up to The Roots’ reputation as one of the few modern oases of the industry, inviting and refreshing in the hip-hop desert.
Somehow the Roots have managed to call out the injustices of the day and remain human. This is due in part to the live music factor: drums, bass, guitar, keyboards and the half-man, half-amazing human beat box, Scratch. After all, can you think of any DJs that can mix “Break On Through” by The Doors and “I Got A Story To Tell” by Biggie in a five-minute stretch before a live audience?
Phrenology is the culmination of Thought’s lyrical talent and the musical creativity of the band. It begins with the up-tempo “Rock You” that does just that. A chaotic interlude featuring drummer ?uestlove leads into a series of similar percussion heavy tracks, including “Rolling with Heat” and “Thought at Work.” Although these songs seem designed to display lyrical ingenuity and get heads banging, they remain conscious of various social conditions. As one hook explains, “Downtown everybody move to the beat, uptown everybody moving with heat.”
The remaining tracks have more musically captivating melodies and correspondingly deeper lyrics. “Break You Off” and “Complexity” deal with the human emotions and provide a light alternative to the social commentary pieces, of which “Pussy Galore” takes the lead and shines. Black Thought takes listeners on a lyrical ride through our society where sex sells more and more. The argument is in rather explicit metaphorical form, but only assists in getting the point across. “The Seed” and “Something In The Way Of Things” (featuring Amiri Baraka) also make very powerful statements. In addition, these tracks also feature some avant-garde solos by the musicians.
Phrenology possesses all the necessary qualities of a true hip-hop album: unique sound, meaningful lyrics, and above all a universal audience, for it is, in fact, “for Tracy and Tamika and for Shelly and Susan.”