The Roots’ last effort, 2004’s The Tipping Point, was aptly and unfortunately named: It was just that, a moment in time wherein the near-universally adored Philly collective proved itself mortal, fallible and capable of recording weak stuff. A stab at mainstream love that cut back on the ingredients that brought them such respect — their jazz-tinged liveness and the infallible work of ?uestlove, hip-hop’s most reliable drummer and destroyer of spellchecks — it was sort of what I imagine the end of DiMaggio’s hit streak felt like: “Aww… really? Well, hey. Good run.” (It should be noted that many folks dig Tipping Point, but I’m more of this opinion: Disappear, vamoose, you’re wack to me).
Still, in assembling their new Game Theory, word of which began leaking not all that long after Tipping’s star began to fall, the Roots had more to worry about than simply getting back on the horse; they’d signed with Jay-Z’s Def Jam label, a union forged when they backed Mr. Carter on his damned good 2001 Unplugged set but one that still raised eyebrows in the singular community the Roots occupy, which is to say sallow-skinned blog types and rock critics more than actual hip-hop fans: What in the name of Memphis Bleek were the elegant, politically fiery, underappreciated Roots, who could establish a foundation to begin donating the street cred they’d amassed over the years, doing hanging the hat on the door of the blingiest big-shot in the game, the guy re-touring with R. Friggin’ Kelly by day and spooning with Beyonce by night?
Short version: They knew what they were doing. And in the midst of such potentially cataclysmic distraction comes Game Theory, the Roots’ darkest, grimiest, most unrelenting and possibly most focused effort to date (at 43 minutes, it’s certainly their most efficiently damaging).
Saying the Roots write socially conscious songs is like saying Springsteen occasionally employs metaphors involving rivers; that’s what they do, and that’s why they get so much ink. But something has gotten into Black Thought’s coffee this time out, and it’s a crying damned shame that it could literally be just about anything: the war comes up a lot, as does the anti-response to Katrina, and the various insulting instances of white-collar crime, and the grinding nature of daily street life (say what you will about this administration, but one thing’s clear: If you make your bread money writing about current events, these pinheads are a relentless giving tree of material). Any student of hip-hop will tell you that Thought has written such smart scripture for years; this time out, the gloves have come off and his dark-knight baritone sounds more direct and visceral than he’s ever allowed before. “If I can’t work to make / I’ll rob and take it / Either that or / Me and my children / Are starving and naked,” he roars by way of a hook in the record’s first track, “False Media”, which also finds Wadud Ahmad intoning “America’s lost somewhere inside of Littleton / Eleven million kids are on Ritalin” startlingly like the snarling, horrified cultural lighthouse Chuck D once was.
Equally welcome is the sense that the Roots have relocated the nucleus of their offensive line: ?uestlove, who’s fully returned and re-engaged after cameoing on records by every other artist in the goddamn universe (?uest makes fun of his good-natured traveling in his typically extensive and funny liner notes). Without ever letting the groove slip his reach, he shuffles beats and tempos on “False Media”, uses “Here I Come” to slightly indulge his inner Bad Brain, and drives full-speed into the title track, conjuring up the insistent bang-and-splash vibe that’s instantly recognizable — and welcome — as 100% Roots. The band occasionally gets freaky with their template as well: The tangibly menacing “In the Music”, all night-driver vibe and creepy Spy Hunter riff, reflects the Roots’ new embrace of last-call grime, complete with a chorus by a guy named Porn that comes off something between insistent hook and vaguely unhinged ramble you’d hear floating down from one of the windows above while you stumble home from the bar down shady streets. “Baby” coasts on what sounds like the bass line from Nirvana’s “Come As You Are”, until Thought slyly sneaks in with a quick-hit tale of a dog and a girl. Oh, and “Livin’ in a New World” sounds like Beck. Much of this sonic trickery is no doubt due to the expansive style of J Dilla, the late producer who’s the subject of tributes that bookend the record.
Said tributes are the only breaks in a record of fairly uniform shadow, but Game Theory represents one of the only environments where such a sentence is welcome, even reassuring. Angry Roots are good Roots. One minute, Maimouna Youssef lays down the lyrical theme of the record: “Things don’t feel right over here.” The next, there’s Ahmad presaging: “It looks real fucked up for your next of kin.” and if there’s any comfort to be found in those inconvenient truths, it’s that our smarter, more valuable artists are finally tearing into it relentlessly. Even the ones on Jay-Z’s label.