The Roots last two records, 2006’s Dilla-mourning Game Theory and 2008’s paranoid, 8-years-of-Bush-vibing Rising Down, weren’t exactly encouraging signs for the long term prospects of one of rap’s longest running groups–they sounded depressed, basically. Def Jam slept on their promotion. Jay-Z convinced them to write abstruse stuff that probably even he didn’t like. They’d tour 300, 350 nights a year. Black Thought sounded tapped out, idea-wise–cops, the government, the deplorable situation back home in Philly, etc. Then came the Fallon gambit, an improbable revitalization project that started strong and only got better. They showed a sense of slow-jam-the-news humor they’d always had live but had long since lost on record. Tariq and ?uestlove did a little bit of acting. And a band with a vast catalogue and appetite expanded both, learning endless bits of music for 10-second walk-ons and commercial break bumpers. Their reward? Debuting the single off their next album live on national television–something that as recently as last year would’ve been laughably unlikely.
Anyway, who knows, the Roots have always had a powerful live charisma, but why not, let’s say it–“How I Got Over,” with its obvious debts to James Brown and Curtis Mayfield, seems like a great song, playful and tight and ambitious, seemingly designed to go over like the big event they and Fallon set it up to be. As always, ?uestlove’s Twitter has most of the backstory, from shouts to Fallon (“much thanks jimmy. in these 17 years many claim to be fans and supporters of us, but RARELY has anyone put their money where their mouth is like this. thank you so much man”) to shots at Def Jam. But the song speaks for itself–funky, funny, brassy, a convergence of any number of genres the Roots have always been fluent in but haven’t always successfully united. And, despite the requisite portion of doleful lyrics–stress is still Black Thought’s default mode, at least when he’s rapping–this anything but a doleful song. It’s nice to hear this band sound happy again.