“Something in the Way of Things (In Town),” besides bad memory block, is the last song on the Roots’ best album yet. For seven minutes, Amiri Baraka sees ice picks, a blackbird with its ass on fire, and—like anybody with three eyes—too much of door-darkener #1 Skully D, a/k/a/ Death himself, whether as a hood ornament or ghost of ex-masters past, now trying to revoke Baraka’s Nobel laureate. If, that is, Ahmir Thompson’s brain-swabbing cymbals don’t get him first. This is the song Neptune Pharrell suggested for Phrenology‘s first single. Stalked by his own echo, Baraka crosses a wintry guitar figure staggering up the sidewalk, where the Roots first beat their buckets in Philly’s early ’90s, when “whatever happened to Leonard Part One through Five” passed for a hook.
Maybe “Something” wouldn’t have made sense as a single. It’s hard to make a hook from a sickle, plus folks won’t believe a live human is playing drums that fast—keeping time from running out and snitching, “He programmed it!”
“The Seed 2.0,” making babies and no bones about it, would work as a single. Singer Cody ChesnuTT rips off his Velcro chest wig and flings it at the girl up front. The Roots have added a rhythm guitarist, and Ahmir makes whoop-ass with the snare; the custom rim shot and Fender get the night off. While ChesnuTT goes push-push, not scared to bring a child into Double-Dubya III, Black Thought drawls his “son of gun” like he’s swaggering the county line between MJG and CDB. It’s an urgent song for a future generation who may not ever see the Roots as Jay-Z’s band, but who will hopefully in their lifetime see the Roots turn a stage into sawdust. Phrenology reveals pulsating growth—a surprising bump on our skulls that some didn’t feel before, while others banged their grapes wishing for it.
The album’s first single, “Break You Off,” scared Roots fans more than “Something in the Way,” more than ChesnuTT vicking your VapoRub. Though Musiq sneaks a page from Montell Jordan’s two-way, the second-half strings attempt a 4 Hero rescue. You have to withstand the pollywog-punk bazerk of “!!!” as well, just so its parting guitar blast can announce “Sacrifice,” the most playful beat here. Leave the MPC to the Fisher-Price whimsy of a three-year-old (daughter of keyboard player Kamal Gray) and you’re setting a nice pick on the ice beast.
“Sacrifice” would’ve made for a great single, because now you can proudly throw chairs at the How Can I Be Clowned meeting and declare, “I like the Roots song with Nelly Furtado!” More guest than cameo, Nelly just lines the chorus so there’s no blinding taa-daa. That’s Rahzel on the low-end “ooh,” part of beat and band, saving his throat for the techno throb in the album’s hidden track. Phrenology plugs the Roots’ fabled beatboxes into songs not solos, rubbing together a little spit to make things stick. (Scratch, who does a mean Cybotron, was recently stitched to Zap Mama on Autechre’s all-human “Gnit”— finally electro that sounds like electro, with some damn bass in it.)
This past spring, “Thought @ Work” was a single, sort of, as Thought spit white-label loogies over “Apache.” His riff of a radio with two bodiless hands still attached deserves a standing “oh shit!” from the floating mitts on the Incredible Bongo Band album cover. Between Salaam Remi scalping “Apache” for Nas and Portishead’s bongoless cover on a pink 45, 2002 was a good year for reimagining the B-boy classic.
And it’s been another banner year for ass. But “Pussy Galore” rubs up against being a “commercial heatseeker for target marketing.” An old Jungle Brothers hook gets replaced with a creepy updated model, and we sing along, barely noticing.
The band plays on despite the ironic wink, as when performing “Proceed” in their younger “jazzy” days. Black Thought always gave Malik B the customary invisible-man’s cue, though his talented partner was never there. Thought’s most personal track yet, “Water,” searches old haunts and souls while an eerie female siren summons 1996’s “No Great Pretender,” one of Malik’s best appearances.
Superimposing live drums, à la Stet, over Flying Lizard claps, “Water” could patty-cake with Shirley Ellis’s “Clapping Song” if it weren’t so dark. Four minutes into it, the band takes off after their lost soldier and passes through Divine Styler’s spiral walls (or at least the mixing board) as the scaly siren leads them into bong-bubbling basshead jazz, enough to make one quit the hard stuff. Don’t give up. The Blood Ulmer zombie lurch starts around 7:15 and for a solid 55 seconds, there’s something to nod on to before the theremin demons get loose. It recalls Roots Show #5643, long after Black Thought’s rhetorical cue, when Ahmir abandoned kit to test-drive his sticks on every other surface in the room, a phantom playing Cobham bone. Ten minutes long, “Water” never ends; rather, it unravels the bansheets to escape out the hospital window only to drop into the mad lieutenant’s heroin hell from Bakshi’s Coonskin.
OK, “Water” might not work as a single. Best just get the whole album or get out of the way.