The problem with the Roots is that they’re too normal for hip-hop. Take lead MC Black Thought for instance: Sober and stealthy, the self-proclaimed Bad Lieutenant, residing between South Philly and Love Jones, is a slap in the face to every well- intentioned gangsta fetishist. He’s never bloviated at length about his hard-knock life, and unlike our current critical faves, he refuses to be either the crazed coke rapper or the oversensitive, tree-hugging conscious type. What exactly is he good for?
By the same token, drummer Ahmir Thompson (a/k/a ?uestlove), affable native of middle-class Philadelphia, is also a conventional if ambitious dude. But sometimes—like when he names his albums after famous novels or pontificates on classicist panning techniques—his visions of grandeur earn him criticism. (Who does he think he his, a damn indie rocker?) Such has been the Roots’ career-long plight, ignored for being too boring or dismissed as too pretentious. Game Theory, their eighth and most radical record to date, is not likely to change that, but here they’ve resurfaced sounding dark, mysterious, and pissed off. At times, like on the furious title track, Black Thought sounds as though he could be spitting his darts while swinging contemptuously from the noose depicted on the album’s grim cover. Raw, emotive, and urgent as a motherfucker, his flow—on songs like opener “False Media,” whose gangly steel snares give way to plush orchestration—is bleak and expansive and seething with wrath. Offsetting Thought’s more practiced approach, the long-M.I.A. Malik B deploys a slick and wicked sneer over the buzzed-out, techno-y bliss of “Here I Come,” while lead single “Don’t Feel Right” finds Thought accusing the government of, among other things, shady surveillance tactics.
These barbs mingle with less combative gems like the folksy, weathered “Long Time,” wherein ?uestlove lays down a dusty “Funky Drummer” interpolation perfectly setting the tone for Thought and fellow Philly rep Peedi Peedi’s indulgent everyman musings. Actually, the band’s populist stance seems ironic in this context, considering that Def Jam don Jay-Z, probably the least normal person in hip-hop, put them on, feeding speculation that the Roots would “go commercial.” But as evidenced by the cold industrial stomp of “In the Music,” our normal heroes are, for the most part, sticking to their guns. Black Thought sums up the 2006 Roots manifesto with a warning to gangsta fetishists and other cultural tourists: “I’m from the illest part of the Western Hemisphere/So if you into sightseeing, don’t visit there.”