So I guess this means I like these guys now
I finally got around to watching The Last Waltz last night, and something occurred to me: the Roots have become basically a rap equivalent of the Band. Both groups exist at the center of a loose circle of artists as didactic as they are talented, both are made up of road-wizened virtuosic veterans, both play self-consciously archaic takes on popular music, both sometimes clutter up their music with too much piano, both have terrible names. In Dave Chappelle, the Roots even have an equivalent to Martin Scorsese, a famous artistic type openly and endearingly besotted with this group of musicians way less famous than he is; it’s something of a miracle that Chappelle didn’t come off like a slavering herb in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. It’s fun to look at the lineup of guest performers in The Last Waltz and try to find their contemporary equivalents in the guests at the Roots’ two Radio City shows earlier this year: Jay-Z as Bob Dylan? Joni Mitchell as Erykah Badu? Big Daddy Kane as Muddy Waters? The analogy isn’t perfect, though, since the Band had a clear frontman, and the Roots don’t, which has always been a problem for them. But on Game Theory, their new album, they’ve found a way around that.
I only heard it for the first time last week, but Game Theory may well be the Roots’ best album. When the Roots announced that they’d signed to Def Jam early in the year, it didn’t necessarily seem like a great move, though I guess a move to any supportive major label is a good one. Still, it seemed like the band might use this new platform to cast their net wide and bring in as many guests as possible. The band’s affability is one of its greatest strengths onstage (or not; see the first Radio City show) and one of its greatest weaknesses on albums; they tend to get so loose and jammy that they’re constantly in danger of spinning off into pretentiousness, as on Phrenology, or evening out into a good-time jam-band autopilot, as they do on the worst bits of Things Fall Apart. If they’d decided to solidify their status as benchmarks of the Okayplayer scene on Game Theory, if they’d decided to create its definitive document, the album would’ve been insufferable. They could’ve done it, though, and their dedicated fanbase would’ve eaten it up. Instead, they’ve decided to do something different, excising all their jam-band tendencies and putting together the leanest, tensest album they’ve ever made: hardly any guests, short and focused songs, only one sprawling concept-jam. On songs as roughh and hectic as the ones here, they don’t really need a frontman.
Game Theory has an impeccable sequencing, building in intensity to a fiery middle section and then cooling off for the last few songs. It starts slowly with the awkwardly existential dread-meditation “False Media” and the workmanlike single “Don’t Feel Right” coming early, and it peters out at the end with the well-intentioned but fizzy and melodramatic Jay Dee tribute “Can’t Stop This,” but almost everything in between is pure fire. ?uestlove has been saying in interviews that this is their darkest album, and it’s true: the great middle passage drips with paranoia and resentment in the form of a suite of nebulously political slow-burners. The group is using guitars and keyboards better than ever before, turning them into glistening stabs of dubby hostility rather than letting them noodle over the top. And Black Thought raises to the challenge on these tracks. He’s still as cold and uncharismatic as ever, but the tense pared-down sound works for him; his monotone becomes an urgent, insistent assault, as hard and unforgiving as the poverty and depression he’s rapping about. And he’s helped enormously by Malik B, who’s finally back with the group after disappearing off the face of the Earth for a couple of years. Malik is raw and fired-up where Thought is practiced and deliberate, and the contrast does wonders. And Peedi Crack’s guest appearance on “Long Time” is the best thing I’ve ever heard from him. I’ve always loved Peedi’s cartoon-gangsta persona, but here he manages to deliver a warm and introspective reminisce without compromising his demented chirp or losing his sense of humor. ?uestlove should ask Jay-Z about adding Peedi to the group permanently; it might be the only way we’ll get a consistent stream of records from that dude. After “Long Time,” the album ratchets the intensity level down, moving smoothly into a couple of quietly blissful R&B songs, and it’s just what the album needs. I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, but Game Theory is certainly a triumph for the Roots, a breakthrough to a new sensibility. They’re onto something special here, and I hope they keep going with it.
Voice review: Oliver Wang on the Roots’ The Tipping Point
Voice review: Dave Tompkins on the Roots’ Phrenology
Voice review: Miles Marshall Lewis on the Roots’ Things Fall Apart