Thursday, July 22, 2010

How I Never Got Over: the Roots

I remember buying my first Roots album, Phrenology. It was my 13th birthday present from my Grandma, whose 1930s upbringing has left her with a classical and jazz music taste that never even fully warmed up to the Beatles (and a poofy Jewfro so big that it nearly covers her face). As we were driving back from the CD store, I eagerly popped in the new album, ready to show off how cool and how much of a rebel I was listening to hip-hop. I turned it to a volume far too loud for a grandmother and began nodding my head to the singles, “Sacrifice,” “The Seed 2.0” and “Break You Off.” Then, something shocking happened. Grandma nodded her head a bit too. Grandma was enjoying hip-hop, and suddenly I was not such a young badass.

Yet, another strange thing happened too: I didn’t particularly care that my rebel status had taken a colossal hit. The music that hit my ears was new and exciting and by the end of the ride home, the Roots were already one of my favorite groups. Their take on hip-hop was unlike the other hip-hop albums I was nodding my head to back then, like 2pac’s Me Against the World and Nas’ Illmatic (still in the rotation) and not just because they didn’t encourage me to buy “Ecko” clothing or to call my friends “dawg.” Not to slight either of those classics, but the Roots push the creative boundaries of hip-hop in ways that other artists do not. Rather than follow the traditional hip-hop formula—defiant, ego-driven, emotional and at times inspiring lyrics sung over a background beat with heavy bass and a looped hook—the Roots make hip-hop music in which the rap can not be separated from the beat. In other words, the Roots first and foremost make music and music that can move you in ways a clever rhyme cannot. Take “Sacrifice.” Black Thought, the MC, stops rhyming with over a minute left, but that’s not particularly noteworthy. It’s that the last minute, during which ?uestlove's drums and the repeating chorus take over, is my favorite part of the song. It’s that it feels like the finale of one of the great rock songs I grew up with.

It may have taken another few years for me to stop hanging my pants so low below my waist that it angered my mom, but I matured with Phrenology. I learned to appreciate hip-hop, and music for that matter, in a new way. I learned to recognize the differences between the feeling a catchy hook, a powerful line or a cool riff can provoke and the total rush I have when I listen to song in which every small detail works together to create an awe-inspiring, beautiful, rich sound.

Yet, even as I have since continued to mature musically, I have never gotten over the Roots because, well, they have continued to mature too. As anyone versed in art knows, the great artists, whether you look at the Beatles or Pablo Picasso or W.B. Yeats, continue to push the boundaries of their art as they grow older. No, the Roots do not belong next to those names in terms of artistic achievements. However, in terms of their ability to adapt with their contemporaries and continue to create relevant, exciting art, they have been similarly exceptional.

Compare the opening tracks of Do you want more?!!!??!, their first major label album released in 1995, and How I Got Over, released last month. Do you want more?!!!??!(,) was more than a hip-hop album—it was an experiment in, as the opening lines of the album tell us, “organic hip-hop jazz.” Jazz and hip-hop have many historical connections (perhaps most readily apparent in Ali Shaheed Muhammed’s beats for A Tribe Called Quest). The Roots, however, took those connections to a new level with their piano and horn heavy jazzy beats, becoming leaders of “hip-hop jazz.”

The opening track of How I Got Over, “A Peace of Light”, on the other hand, is quite different. Indie rock stars Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian and Haley Dekle (all of the Dirty Projectors) sing a gentle, wordless harmony over a soft, jazzy ?uestlove drumbeat that leaves us in contemplative anticipation. Over the past fifteen years, the Roots have progressed from their original “organic hip hop jazz,” adding elements of soul, classic rock, electronica, and even the most current indie rock. But they no longer need to warn us (as they did on Do you want more?!!!??!) that the album will challenge our understanding of hip-hop. After over a decade of relevant, exciting Roots music that even my Grandma can jam to, we know that we can count on them for that.


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