Equal parts mini-marathon, improv show and authentic hip-hop at its finest, fans and followers across the country never seem to grow weary of a good Roots concert. The Roots are guaranteed to go down in history as one of the best live performance groups in hip-hop history. Public acclaim for their recorded albums, however, has always eluded them.
Imagine a life in the public eye where you constantly reinvent yourself. That’s the life of the Roots, who bring a new sound to each new album. Fans must try and keep up with them. Imagine the split between those who look forward to “what the Roots will bring to the table next” and those who get tired of trying to figure them out. The latter group leaves, and may not appreciate the music until it’s gone. It’s a portrait of the hip-hop crew that is as classic as a van Gogh.
The Roots, to their credit, hold fast to the spirit of true artistry. The Phrenology-era Roots crew omits some familiar faces. One of the Roots original members, Malik B., lead vocalist and rapper Black Thought’s side man, was thought by many to be just as talented, if not more, than his counterpart. But an inability to leave the streets alone landed him in jail during the recording of this, their sixth album.
Black Thought comments on B.’s absence on songs like “The Water,” advising his friend that he’s a “poet” who needs to get “over the water.” Other Roots affiliates we’re accustomed to seeing — Dice Raw, Godfather Rahzel — play less prominent roles on the new release. Their absences are replaced with guitar player-multi-instrumentalist Ben Kenney. Looking and playing as if he had been plucked from a Ben Harper band, Kenney’s influence on the Roots can be described by two of the most recent CDs he purchased.
“I know exactly what it was,” he says via the Roots Web site, okayplayer.com, “Jeff Buckley and Gary Willis’ Songs to No One.”
Phrenology goes where hip-hop records aren’t supposed to, offering impressive collaborations with newcomer Cody Chestnutt, as well as Nelly Furtado and Scott. You also get five solid minutes of rhythmless electronica and a sweet hidden track with hip-hip strongman Talib Kweli, who pops up twice on the album.
Phrenology will undoubtedly deepen the split between Roots fans and Roots inquisitors. But you’ve got to respect their eye for strong concepts. The album title is a concocted word used to describe the supposed inferior mental capacity of black people. On their album cover, The Roots re-create the accompanying 19th century diagram scientists used to point out deficiencies in the black man’s brain. The Roots’ version indicates many of the social elements that feed hip-hop culture — the good and the effed-up.
It also reflects the elements that feed their music. Many of Black Thought’s hardcore lyrics get lost in the mix because the Roots’ overall presentation is so creative. On “Rock You,” Thought describes the crew as “them long dick niggas with real short fuses.” Pretty shocking vibe there. But who’s gonna catch it when it’s riding under a drum track that ups the ante on Queen’s “We Will Rock You?”
When the crew plays The State Theatre, they will undoubtedly pull some new stage tricks out of their hat. Touring more than two-thirds of the year will do that to a live show. Special guest Big Daddy Kane adds a shot of nostalgia to the mix. (When was the last time Kane did a show in town with anybody?) As Kane would say, this show guaranteed to be R-A-W. Rock, rock, y’all.
The Roots play the State Theatre (2115 Woodward Ave., Detroit) on Sunday, Feb. 2, with Big Daddy Kane and Skillz. Call 313-961-5450 for further information.Khary Kimani Turner is a frequent contributor to Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org