Starting with the dizzying sweep of 2002's Phrenology and continuing through the sharp funk of 2008's Rising Down, the Roots have evolved into one of the nation's most consistently dazzling bands, repeatedly justifying their hype on records that deftly express the African-American experience while rocking smarter than most of their white counterparts. Their latest, How I Got Over, is an inherently paradoxical album — it's a velvety record about economic hard times sung from the perspective of a band that has lucked into one of the most stable day jobs in the business. But in a sign that the Roots' quality control hasn't diminished one bit, How I Got Over's contradictions merely strengthen this deeply compelling album.
When the Roots signed on last year to be the house band for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, there was a worry that the daily demands (not to mention inanity) of talk-show TV would sap the group's vitality and edge. But while How I Got Over largely lacks the fiery rhetoric of previous efforts, it's a remarkably supple record that demonstrates how a collection of well-read grown-ups can scrape together some free time to make an album that addresses their frustrations with a world that's barely gotten better since Obama took office. With band bellwethers Questlove and Black Thought pushing 40, the album's smoothed-out funk can undeniably be described as mellow, but there's nothing lazy or smug about its scope. Sure, the title track swings, but the hard-truth lyrics mourn the cruelty of the inner city, while "Radio Daze" is such a jazzy pleasure you may never realize it's about the corrosive effects of poverty. The Roots know how lucky they have it, but on How I Got Over they refuse to let their good fortune blind them to the unhappiness all around them.
Tim Grierson writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.