The Roots have never put out a bad album. Obviously, some are better than others — 1999′s Things Fall Apart is regarded as the standard-bearer and 2004′s The Tipping Point was something of a low point — but few hip-hop acts have managed The Roots’ longevity at all, let alone their stunning consistency.
Conversely, The Roots also haven’t managed to attain the crossover appeal other much less worthy hip-hop acts have managed with relative ease. How I Got Over, the band’s ninth full-length studio album, finally holds that potential in light of the increased visibility ?uestlove, Black Thought and the group have attained through nightly appearances as the house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. It’s doing well. It debuted around number 7 on Amazon, just behind two of the rappers who have attained that crossover appeal I mentioned: Eminem and Drake.
This album is a good one, maybe the best in their discography, for new listeners to jump on with, partially because it documents the band crawling out of the pretty deep, dark hole of anger of their previous two albums. Those records, Game Theory and Rising Down, are excellent in their own right, but their moody subject matter (on the former, ennui about the war in Iraq, and on the latter, racial tension) made the records something of an intellectual exercise once you got past the booming drums and catchy hooks of initial listens. As Andre 3000 might say, they presented a stack of questions with no answers.
How I Got Over doesn’t dumb down the content as some would suggest is the key to gaining mainstream appeal. Black Thought and a large cohort of guest emcees including former Little Brother member Phonte, Dice Raw and Peedi Peedi are just as astute and insightful with their rhymes as ever. The difference, rather, is in the mood. Opening tracks “Walk Alone,” “Dear God 2.0″ and “Radio Daze” continue the existential dread theme of previous albums, but the next track, “Now or Never” starts a thematic shift that plays through the rest of the album and is most deftly stated in the record’s title track. Yes, there is plenty of bad in the world. And there’s a lot you can’t change. But if you let your worries and your fears stop you from doing the good you can, you’ve done nothing. It’s a simple idea, but it’s stated beautifully, and something people probably need to hear right now.
If you’ve ever read the liner notes of a Roots album, you may have noticed that they number their songs sequentially from album to album (this record includes songs 143 to 156). It’s a little unusual, but it works perfectly for the band, as their body of work has been something of a 17-year-long stream of consciousness. They way their previous albums flow into this one, and the dour attitude of those records is essentially resolved with a new sense of purpose at the end of How I Got Over simply seems of a piece. Even the cover art depicts the arc — Game Theory displayed an ominous game of hangman, Rising Down a sinister and dark cartoon showing the perspective of racists scared of some black menace. The cover of How I Got Over shows a diverse group of silhouettes striding with purpose toward a light. And it’s hard to come away from this album not feeling similarly enlightened.
You thought: It’s going to stay on your iPod for a long time to come.