Eight of us packed into a midsize sedan to travel from New Brunswick, NJ, to Lowell, MA, in the fall of 1993. Engulfed by furniture factories, thrift stores, and Allen Ginsberg, the destination was the annual Jack Kerouac Festival, the trademarked college road trip. The poetry, most of it bad and expectable, was par for the course; the surprise was the two albums my friend's brother popped into the tape deck: G. Love and Special Sauce's debut and the Roots' Do You Want More? While today G. hovers on the fringes of the public eye, releasing wistful rehashings and occasional solid singles, the Roots have become an acclaimed and lauded institution in hip-hop, the number one backing band and premier headliner in an industry still governed by synth-fueled beats and cleverer-than-you samples.
Jazz-influenced rap was nothing new when the Roots dropped Organix in '93. Sampling had been going on for years, yet no one had considered the live possibilities of merging these forms. In the 23 years since Tariq and Ahmir first laid down a rhythm and rhyme in Philly, no one has come close to doing it as well as the Roots. The band's reach is simply too long, their staying power and integrity too celebrated. This does not mean they get everything right--there have been temple-scratching moments--but the fact that they're constantly evolving is reason enough to tune in. Knowing the danger of sounding like a regurgitated press release, How I Got Over might be the band's fullest, most complete album to date.
One of the central problems with broad experimentations is that you force the listener to cut tracks from their playlists. iTunes is our modern cassingle--we import hot songs and leave the rest to wallow in obscurity. I've always loved the Roots' albums, but I've also banished songs from my iPod. Phrenology was this band's defining album moment; it was certainly Questlove's triumphant decree as bandleader. What followed were a series of singles-based recordings: the Black Thought-dominated (not a bad thing) The Tipping Point; the ambitious and mostly successful Game Theory; the even more ambitious and less successful Rising Down. The benefit is also a shackle in being so prolific: new material is hard to come by, harder to convince the public to.
Yet intelligence beats zealousness: the Roots invited a ton of friends to drop into the studio for these recent sessions. Black Thought's role has been cast as diminished, but I don't hear that. The best music has plenty of space. As a drummer Questlove knows this, lives by it. Black Thought's diversity as a lyricist and performer depends on his bandleader's inspiration, which is why their marriage is so fruitful. Instead of trying to dominate another album, they sample then reinvent intriguing artists: alt-rock supergroup Monsters of Folk, the dreamy harpist/vocalist Joanna Newsom, R&B dependable John Legend. Like the reinvention of Cody Chesnutt's headphone masterpiece, here the Roots create depth and textures unknown in the source material--reimagined remixes that honor the maker and push the music forward.
Speaking of makers, the most interesting aspect of this record is how much Black Thought's theology has deepened. His poetic quest has become larger than life. God references abound, especially on the Monsters of Folk redeux, "Dear God." But "The Fire" and "Now or Never" admit a particularly strong yearning, especially the latter, which features Little Brother's Phonte, himself an accomplished seeker. Power resides in questions, not answers, and definitely not in demands. Black Thought has long brandished a heavy sword, sometimes to his detriment. As one friend asked me after the release of Game Theory, "Why's he always got to be battling someone? Doesn't he know it's a new era? Why can't he celebrate life once in a while?" If he didn't undersand that then, he does now. Besides the mandatory record label jab, all of Black Thought's punches are directed at himself, being a better man, seeking a stronger deity. This is tough in a music market that chooses fantasy over reality, but as an honest man, the streets you live on are more important than the ones you'll never walk down, headnods to Sierra Leone and the Sudan aside.
Thirty-year-old Dice Raw, a Roots satellite member since high school, sounds great on the title song and the throwback "Radio Daze." Throw it back to gospel, throw it back to Motown, this hook is patently classic. Perhaps the most surprising guest on How I Got Over is the piano, the source of the most confusion amongst haters who claim this album too soft. If you want to hear past Roots albums, listen to past Roots albums. This band has never been one to sit still and meekly observe trends. They're not even ahead of the curve because they're on their own arc. The stairway might be steep, but one you go over the sound is unlike anything else today.