It almost doesn’t seem fair to compare any other live rap show to the Roots. If the whole live-rap-band thing was just a gimmick, they’d be terrible, just like every rapper who decides out of the blue to do shows with a live band ends up being terrible. But they approach the rap part of the show just as seriously as they approach the live-band part; they might let everyone in the band play solos, but they always come back to the beat. The live-band thing does give them a looseness that they wouldn’t have otherwise; it lets them switch up styles and go on extended digressions into rock or funk or Afrobeat without making a big thing out of it. Black Thought isn’t a particularly compelling rapper on record, all pristine breath-control and brow-furrowed formalism. But those qualities make him a great live performer; his voice is strong and precise, he doesn’t need a hypeman to be heard, he never fucks up or forgets his lyrics or loses his place, and he knows when to shut up and let someone else take over. He’s not a star, but he is a truly dependable worker-bee. Everyone in the band is a borderline virtuoso, which can lead to wanky showboating (I’d give Kamal $10 to ease up on the constant jazz-funk organ fills), but it can also lead to some jaw-dropping pyrotechnic shit. They’ve played together for well over a decade now, and they’re all locked in enough to follow each other’s cues, and they put on three-hour shows like it’s nothing. All those virtues was on display at Radio City earlier tonight, and the show somehow still managed to disappoint. This is a rough town.
Here’s the problem: you can’t promise a huge mystery-guest extravaganza and then not deliver. A few months back, Jay-Z signed the Roots to Def Jam, and they’ve been hard at work on their supposed masterpiece Game Theory ever since; the half-decent first single dropped earlier this week. The group’s two shows at Radio City Music Hall were touted as their big Def Jam coming-out party, the nights that ?uestlove would flex his Rolodex and bring the stars out of hiding like he did at Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. The two nights were divided between rap (tonight) and R&B (tomorrow night), with Talib Kweli, Common, and Nas being the only preannounced guests for tonight. In this XXL interview, ?uestlove talks about the difficulties of cramming all the guests he was planning into the measly three-hour window that Radio City allowed. It’s been fun trying to guess who might show up over the last couple of weeks: Kanye? Lupe? Rae and Ghost? Lauryn Hill? The big, huge question mark was Jay-Z. Jay signed the Roots and used them as his backing band on the Unplugged album and Fade to Black, and he would’ve been a big no-brainer for this show, but he didn’t show up. Neither did Kanye or Lupe or Rae or Ghost or Lauryn Hill. The people who showed up were Talib Kweli and Common and Nas. And Big Daddy Kane, who was great but who wasn’t really a shock. That was it for big guests; the only others were a couple of dudes who I didn’t recognize who ran out and rapped two verses even though their mics were off. (Slum Village? You’d have to ask someone who cares about Slum Village.)
The guests themselves were mostly good, other than Kweli, who still can’t ride a beat to save his life and who insisted on subbing in a weak-ass freestyle for his best verse ever. Nas came out first, as the band segued from that song on Phrenology that samples “Apache” into “Made You Look,” which also samples “Apache” and which sounded badass. Nas only held the stage for about fifteen minutes, but that was enough time to do “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” and “The World is Yours” and “If I Ruled the World” and leave swirls of dust spinning behind him. (In a charitable moment, he also called Black Thought “one of the most incredible lyricists in the game.”) It was hard for any of the other guests to live up to that, but they tried. Kane absolutely burned through “Set It Off” and “Warm It Up, Kane,” and he looked crazy dapper, but his mic was fucked up and he only got a few minutes onstage. I don’t much like Common, but he is a commendably dedicated live performer, running around the stage and generally staying on beat, though he too insists on busting lame freestyles. The problem with multiple guest-star shows, though, is that they make it hard to see the actual headlining group; you’re always looking off to the side of the stage and wondering who’s going to come on next, like it’s a pro-wrestling match that you know is going to end in outside interference. And it doesn’t much help that all the guest rappers except Kweli are exponentially more charismatic than Black Thought.
Still, this was a Roots show, not too different from all the other Roots shows I’ve seen over the years. It started out particularly strong, with just Thought and ?uestlove onstage, doing a fierce runthrough of “Web.” By the third song, though, ?uestlove was doing dueling drum-solos with the percussionist, and things were back to normal. The first time I saw the Roots, all the solos just about took the top of my head off, but that was eight years ago, and Hub is still playing the same damn five-minute bass solo. By this point, they’ve spent so many years touring that anyone with even a passing interest in seeing the group live has already seen them a couple of times, and these naked displays of virtuosity aren’t surprising anymore. They played with a bigger band than usual last night, fourteen musicians onstage including DJ Jazzy Jeff, but it didn’t add much to the show beyond a cluttered mix. The one big difference was Rahzel. Every time I’ve seen the Roots live before, they’ve had DJ Scratch as their beatbox, and that guy is incredible. But Rahzel’s solo is just breathtaking; there’s no way to figure out how that guy is doing all that stuff with just his mouth. He talked like a magician (“Ladies and gentlemen, the beat and the chorus at the same time!”), and he did a riduculously great mini-set of old dancehall songs, somehow reproducing the beats and the vocals simultaneously. For the last hour of the show, he was the only star onstage.
Oh, and Dave Chappelle and Erykah Badu walked out onstage just as the show was ending. They didn’t do anything.