The Roots are professionals. With a capital-P, kid. That’s why they’re 18 years deep with 12 studio albums under their collective belt and 4 Grammys to show for it. And behind all this, they have been the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon for the last two years. They not only make it work on late night TV every night, they absolutely kill it. The Roots, led by Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, are so much more than a hip hop band, they are some of the best musicians working today. Leaving the sex and drugs to Wiz Khalifa and Kid Cudi, The Roots stay true to their mission statement in their newest release, How I Got Over (DefJam; 2010). The record is lyrically, musically, and stylistically cohesive, while maintaining enough diversity to hold the listener for the full 42 minutes. By the end of a listen, there can be no doubt that you’ve just listened to an “album,” not just a collection of randomly selected songs. ?uestlove’s drumming sits so deep in the pocket, Black Thought could spit just about anything and it would sound great.
But what really makes How I Got Over is its sense of purpose and flow. After the jaw-clenching nature of their last two Def Jam releases, Game Theory and Rising Down, this record starts low and builds all the way through. The Roots’ jazz influences are especially prevalent on How I Got Over, particularly in the introductory track, “A Peace of Light.” Kamal Gray’s keyboard work throughout the album are at times reminiscent of Bill Evans to Chick Corea to Herbie Hancock to J Dilla. The instrumental layering is never lost on the listener, but blends so perfectly within each song that nothing sounds glaringly individual.
The first half of How I Got Over is melancholy and down-tempo, while the second half really turns around and lifts the mood while remaining resolutely serious. The two standout tracks on the album to me are “The Fire” and “Hustla.” ”The Fire” features John Legend’s distinctly soulful vocals over a solid beat from ?uestlove and the stoic rhymes from Black Thought. ”Hustla” has the quirkiest feel on the record. It includes the absolute best use of autotune I have ever heard. The main melodic tool of the track is autotuned babies crying. Over that, STS and Black Thought spit with the best flow found on the entire album.
How I Got Over is without a doubt the strongest effort to date from The Roots. From the songwriting to the lyricism to the production, the record borders on perfect. The only complaint that I have with it is that it isn’t longer! The Roots are alt-rap icons, but nobody’s perfect. This record is them coming to terms with our common difficulties and how to get past them. This is an instruction manual for how we can all get over.
Standouts: “Peace of Light” “How I Got Over” “The Fire” “Hustla”
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-Nathaniel Kerbin, February 17, 2011