The seminal hip hop group’s ninth album is another classic-in-waiting.
The cover gives the title away. On the front of The Roots’ ninth studio album 11 silhouetted people run from darkness into bright light. It’s as if Philadelphia’s finest rap crew are saying, “This is how we got over bad times: with the help from our nearest and dearest.” While that sentiment might seem glib, it comes alive on this staggering record.
Although drummer/producer ?uestlove (Ahmir Thompson) and MC/producer Black Thought (Tariq Trotter) are again the central protagonists, the importance of collaborators is paramount.
Anyone who has seen the band perform their role as house band on US chat show Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, backing the likes of Hot Chip and Eminem, will be aware of their versatility, and here the boys always deliver in conjunction with their guests. From the album’s opener, a stylish blend of echo-y, almost psychedelic Hammond and improvised crooning from the ladies of Brooklyn’s Dirty Projectors, an almost impossibly high level of quality is maintained. Dear God 2.0 sees My Morning Jacket/Monsters of Folk singer Jim James contribute a devastating vocal, while The Day, a nostalgic De La Soul-flavoured number, welcomes Patty Crash for a sweet chirrup, coming over like a kind of trainee Macy Gray.
How I Got Over’s finest track, Right On, is built around a sample from celebrated Californian harpist Joanna Newsom’s The Book of Right-On. It’s hard to imagine many 2010 hip hop tunes topping the blend of Newsom’s otherworldly vocal, strident ?uestlove beat and typically honest Black Thought rhyming.
This is swiftly followed by The Fire, a sonically arresting track that marshals a John Legend vocal with keys reminiscent of Air’s Venus and yet more solid work from the consistent ?uestlove. It’s easy to imagine future producers seeking inspiration from the beats and ideas on this album, as avidly as elements of James Brown and Curtis Mayfield have been utilised by contemporary rap artists.
On some of their best work, on albums such as 1999’s Things Fall Apart and 2006’s brooding Game Theory, The Roots have lived up to Chuck D’s “black CNN” definition of hip hop. Here, while socially conscious rhymes are the order of the day, it’s impossible not to be reminded of Mayfield’s Superfly soundtrack. The message is, essentially, “Times are hard, but let’s make things better”. As honest and uplifting statements of intent go, it’s hard to fault – just like this album.