Album review: The Roots, "How I Got Over"

July 7, 2010

The Roots, "How I Got Over" (Def Jam) Rating: 4/4

For nearly two decades, the Roots have justified their oft-cited reputation as the best live band in hip-hop, though that title pays short shrift to the wild musical creativity and inspiring revolutionary themes of their best albums, “Things Fall Apart” (1999) and “Phrenology” (2002), as well as the fluid, genre-defying diversity that landed them their current gig as the house band on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” Fans might have feared that this high-profile entre into the mainstream would dull the Philadelphia collective’s edge on its non-televised activities, especially since its last two albums, “Rising Down” (2008) and “Game Theory” (2006), both were darkly moody affairs that for the first time hinted at the group repeating itself. Yet its ninth studio album and first since becoming the new millennial successor to the Doc Severinsen band is the strongest since the high points cited earlier.

“How I Got Over” starts with several tracks that further the downbeat vibe and lyrical litany of frustrations that dominated the last two discs, though there are a furious focus and an angry concision here that were previously lacking. Witness the way rapper Black Thought uses that familiar pop trope of writing a letter to the Almighty to rage against the many inexplicable injustices here on Earth:

And why do haters separate us like we Siamese?

Technology turning the planet into zombies

Everybody all in everybody’s dirty laundry

Acid rain, earthquakes, hurricane, tsunamis

Terrorists, crime sprees, assaults, and robberies

Cops yellin’ “Stop, freeze!”

Shoot him before he try to leave

Air quality so foul, I gotta try to breath

Endangered species

And we runnin’ out of trees

If I could hold the world in the palm of these

Hands, I would probably do away with these anomalies

Everybody checkin’ for the new award nominee

Wars and atrocities

Look at all the poverty

Ignoring the prophecies

More beef than broccoli

Corporate monopoly

Weak world economy

Stock market topplin’

Mad marijuana, Oxycontin and Klonopin

Everybody out of it.

That ferocious rap, “Dear God 2.0,” builds upon the musical foundation of the Monsters of Folk song, “Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.),” with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James underscoring Black Thought’s despair by crooning the refrain, “Sometimes it’s so hard to believe.” It isn’t the only foray into indie-rock here—Joanna Newsom drops by on “Right On,” and the Dirty Projectors provide the chorus for the intro track “A Peace of Light”—but the Roots never could be accused of pandering to the Pitchfork crowd: The hipster musicians’ contributions are incorporated as seamlessly as those from John Legend or guest rappers Peedi Peedi, Phonte, and Dice Raw, and as always, the heart and soul of everything comes from Questlove’s sublimely minimalist yet undeniable drumming and Kamal Gray’s soulful keyboards, which reflect a century of African-American music without a shred of showboating.

As befits an album named for a gospel track popularized by Mahalia Jackson, the Roots shake off their pessimism midway through these 14 tracks, and the second half of the disc is decidedly more energetic and upbeat. But rather than the specifics of the church, the group puts its faith in self-determination and the power of community as the ways to transcend problems personal or universal. “There’s something in your heart/And it’s in your eyes/It’s the fire inside you/Let it burn,” Legend sings in the rousing closer, “The Fire.” And the Roots once again give us every reason to believe that’s true.