Roots: Game Theory

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?

The Roots

Game Theory

Label: Island Def Jam
US Release Date: 2006-08-29
UK Release Date: 2006-08-28
iTunes affiliate

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.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

19. Antwood: Sponsored Content (Planet Mu)

Sponsored Content is a noisy, chaotic, occasionally beautiful work with a dark sense of humor that's frequently deployed to get Antwood's point across. For instance, throughout the aforementioned "Disable Ad Blocker", which sounds mostly like the creepy side of Tangerine Dream's early '80s experimental output, distorted slogans and recognizable themes worm their way into the mix. "I'm Loving It", we hear at one point, the Sony PlayStation startup music at another. And then there's a ten-second clip of what sounds like someone getting killed in a horror movie. What is there to make of the coexistence of those sorts of samples? Probably nothing explicit, just the uneasiness of benign and instantly-recognizable brand content in the midst of harsh, difficult art. Perhaps quality must to some extent be tied to sponsorship. That Antwood can make this point amidst blasts and washes of experimental electronic mayhem is quite the achievement. - Mike Schiller

18. Bonobo - Migration (Ninja Tune)

Although Bonobo, a.k.a. Simon Green, has been vocal in the past about not making personality driven music, Migration is, in many respects, a classic sounding Bonobo record. Green continues to build sonic collages out of chirping synths, jazz-influenced drums, sweeping strings and light touches of piano but on Migration sounds more confident than ever. He has an ability to tap into the emotions like few others such as on the gorgeous "Break Apart" and the more percussive "Surface". However, Bonobo also works to broaden his sound. The electro-classical instrumental "Second Sun" floats along wistfully, sounding like it could have fit snugly onto a Erased Tapes compilation, while the precise and intricate "Grains" shows the more intimate and reflective side of his work. On the flipside, the higher tempo, beat driven tracks such as "Outlier" and "Kerala" perfectly exhibit his understanding of what works on the dance floor while on "Bambro Koyo Ganda" he even weaves North African rhythms into the fabric. Migration is a multifaceted album full of personality and all the better for it. - Paul Carr

17. Kiasmos - Blurred EP (Erased Tapes)

The Icelandic duo of Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, aka Kiasmos, is a perfect example of a pair of artists coming from two very different musical backgrounds, finding an unmistakable common ground to create something genuinely distinctive. Arnalds, more known for his minimal piano and string work, and Rasmussen, approaching from a more electropop direction, have successfully explored the middle ground between their different musical approaches and in doing so crafted affecting minimalist electronic music. Blurred is one of the most emotionally engaging electronic releases of the year. The duo is working from a refined and bright sonic palette as they consummately layer fine, measured sounds together. It is an intricate yet unforced and natural sounding set of songs with every song allowed room to bloom gradually. - Paul Carr

16. Ellen Allien - Nost (BPitch Control)

BPitch boss and longtime lynchpin of the DJ scene in Berlin, Ellen Allien's seven full-length releases show an artist constantly reinventing herself. Case in point, her 2013 offering, LISm, was a largely beat-less ambient work designed to accompany an artsy dance piece, while its follow-up, 2017's Nost, is a hardcore techno journey, spiritually born in the nightclubs and warehouses of the early '90s. It boasts nine straight techno bangers, beautifully minimalist arrangements with haunting vocals snippets and ever propulsive beats, all of which harken back to a hallowed, golden, mostly-imagined age when electronic music was still very much underground, and seemingly anything was possible. - Alan Ranta

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.