Things seem pretty sweet for the Roots right now. They’ve got that regular gig as the house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, which not only helps pay the bills—records don’t help with that much anymore, I’m told—but also lets them collaborate with any and all musicians that come through the show’s doors. The results have made them easily the most exciting part of a mediocre talk show, and have yielded some surprising and excellent results.
So How I Got Over could very well have been a record about them living the Hollywood life, a laid-back set of songs for the good days. Instead, Black Thought, ?uestlove, and the rest of the Roots give us an album that is anything but relaxed. It’s a timely, and honest, record about making it through tough times. Personal doubt, troubled neighborhoods, social problems, the economy, the environment—you name the issue, it gets mentioned here. But even as the problems mount—both around us and in these songs—the Roots never resort to frustrated complaining.
Instead, Black Thought leads the band through a collection that is, if anything, a bracing call to arms. He’s not necessarily inviting us to push back against all this with him—but he is leading by example. His voice is as strong as it always is, and his rhymes hit fast and hard from beginning to end. Early in the record, on “Walk Alone”, he claims he’ll, “get my Charlie Parker on”. And for the rest of the record he does just that. Parker was, and is, a vital musical voice, one that grew out of the anger and frustration of racial inequality but formed into something resilient, strong and undeniable—listen to any version of “Ah-leu-cha” if you doubt it—and Black Thought, long a strong and confident voice in his own right, delivers some of the best verses of his career on this record.
So when he rattles off lines like, “Walking like the lost boys of Sierra Leone / The trail of tears what they got me like Cherokee on / ‘Tween the ears something I require therapy on, for working to the bone like my name Robert Guillaume,” the isolation he casts himself in is honest and hard earned, not self-pitying celebrity whining. All over the record, Black Thought twists the usual hip-hop braggadocio into a more measured celebration of work ethic. His pride shows, but it doesn’t completely negate his worry, and he speaks honestly of his confusion in the face of world-size troubles, raising questions like “Why is the world ugly when you made it in Your image?” with a weary rasp to his voice, before bursting back to seething life just a few lines later.
Of course, as brilliant as he is on this record, front to back, Black Thought is hardly alone. ?uestlove and the rest of the band back him up with their typical brand of smooth, funky-as-hell beats. In fact, as usual, the beats are so smooth they might initially come off as boilerplate, but there’s actually an amazing subtlety to the sequencing and overall flow of the record. The first half is its own continuous groove. Songs weave together—we move seamlessly from “Walk Alone” to “Dear God 2.0” to “Radio Daze” and so on. But after the mid-album interlude “DillaTUDE: The Flight of Titus”, the lean guitar lines and dusty high hat on “The Day” mark a terse shift in the album’s sound. Songs like “Right On” and “Doin’ It Again” are separated by snippets of sound or in-studio mumbling, while the rest of the beats—from the churning, mixed-up vocals that simmer through “The Fire” to bizarre, underwater lazer sounds on “Web 20/20”—are just too unique to match up with each other. This disconnect actually amps up the album’s tension and energy, as if that first half was the uphill struggle, and the rest is the triumphant sound coming down from the summit.
Amidst all this is a string of those much-hyped “indie rock” collaborators, and there may not be a greater testament to the strength and versatility of the Roots’ sound than the way these disparate elements mesh perfectly into their songs. The ladies from Dirty Projectors—Amber Hoffman, Angel Deradoorian, and Haley Dekle—cast a wordless incantation over the record with opener “A Peace of Light”, and it both sets up the moody first half of the record and, in the way the notes open up, hints at the hard-won strength that comes later. The band also somehow makes Joanna Newsom’s voice fall smoothly into the hook for “Right On”, taken from her early-career track “The Book of Right On”. The beat around her voice is big and thumping and actually makes her voice all the more haunting by taking it out of its usual, fey surroundings and giving it more of a pulse.
None of these collaborations work quite as well as “Dear God 2.0”, where Jim James sings the hook beautifully. “Dear God”—originally a Monsters of Folk track—works much better as a hook here than as a song in its own right, and James makes for a great stand-in for the sped-up soul sample so many hip-hop acts fall back on. As touted as these kinds of collaborations have been, none of them sound all that strange or experimental. They fall right in line with great hooks from the likes of John Legend and great verses from Little Brother’s Phonte and a number of strong turns by Dice Raw.
By the time we get to closer “Hustla”—where Black Thought raps about passing all he’s earned on to his kids—it’s clear the Roots have given us another brilliant album with How I Got Over. It’s as strong as the last two albums—Game Theory and Rising Down—but there’s a more unified feel to this album that makes it stand out. It’s great to see the Roots gaining success and a more universal respect through their work on Fallon, but it’s downright heartening to hear them unwilling to sit back and cruise on this record. “If I said it, I mean it, / If I did it, I need it,” Black Thought asserts on “Doin’ It Again”, the album’s best track. And over 40-plus minutes, he and the Roots and every other player here don’t give you one second to doubt that sentiment.