BY MATTHEW HENGEVELD The Roots have never been the type of band to take the easy way out. Deservedly regarded as one of the hardest working bands of our time with a “constantly on the road” state of mind, they labor over every album like it could be their last. So, when I heard that the autumn 2009 release date of How I Got Over was being pushed back a couple of months, I didn’t fret. ?uestlove, the huge-afro’d drummer and maestro of the group, fearing backlash from dedicated fans, asked the Okayplayer fan base if the delay was acceptable. The fans agreed: if the hiatus resulted in a better album, they would gladly go Root-less for a few more months. Of course, the wait was well worth it. The resulting album bypasses the “something for everyone” philosophy that guided past outings in favor of a cohesiveness that becomes apparent when taken as a whole. Although HIGO does incorporate pop and alt. rock, it will not alienate long-time Roots fans and hip-hop purists.
HIGO opens on shaky ground with “A Piece of Light,” featuring playful drums from ?uesto and powerful Rhodes from Kamal, but the awkward vocals remind me of the theme song from the cartoon Doug. Not to worry, the Roots soon find their footing with the mid-tempo “Walk Alone” which features long-time Roots affiliate Dice Raw singing a Billy-Joel-esque hook. The song discusses the perils of a life lived in isolation — no man is an island, a wise man once said — and hints at a quasi-religious undertone that permeates the album. “Dear God 2.0,” a reworking of A Monsters of Folk song, kicks off with ?uesto’s light snare brushing like rain tapping on a windowsill. Kamal’s emotional organ work reaches for a sadness that is akin to tear-jerkers like Kanye’s “Roses.” Black Thought achieves a level of introspection seldom displayed by any emcee, sharing the dilemma of his father’s passing and the anxiety incurred by being in the clutches of entertainment-industrial complex, i.e. Jimmy Fallon, Def Jam. Though Jim James does belong on this song, it hearkens back to Rising Down’s heated dispute over the ousted song “Birthday Girl,” which featured the lead singer of Fall Out Boy. Despite the gleeful crooning from ?uesto (who sounds like Rowlf The Dog when he sings) “Radio Daze” contains a heavy dose of self-loathing blues. L.A.-based rapper Blu, basks in his own imperfection, suffering with his incapability to cope with being “average as fuck.”
The album’s peaks with “Now or Never” and the title track, “How I Got Over,” possibly the most powerful track in the Roots’ discography. Black Thought’s driven verse embodies the essence of the entire album with lines like, “I’m all cried out, because I grew up crying.” “DillaTUDE: The Flight of Titus” is a fitting memorial to J Dilla and Baatin, both are members of Slum Village who have passed away. “The Day,” “Right On” and “Doin’ It Again” are the best places for non-Roots fans to start. Each song features a fun and quintessentially hip-hoppy beat with lyrics ranging from the ordinary to the over-the-top. Featured guest STS delivers a happy-go-lucky verse that relieves some of the tension from the seriousness of the album. “The Fire”, featuring John Legend tries real hard to be inspirational, but I just found it corny. Finally, the snappy, bass-heavy track “Web 20/20” serves as a high-powered victory lap for Black Thought and fan favorite, North Philly’s oft-incarcerated Peedi Peedi. The big-headedness of the song may turn some listeners away, but I think it’s the perfect song to conclude a fantastic album.