As enjoyable as The Roots’ 2008 album “Rising Down” was, I couldn’t escape a pervasive feeling of sadness given the group declared it would be their FINAL statement with no more to come. Few rap groups stay together as long as The Roots did, fewer still had as much influence over my love for hip-hop music and culture as they did. In fact The Roots made me fall in love with Philadelphia to the degree I once believed the whole future of hip-hop was to be found within the confines of Brotherly Love, simply because The Roots had not only rewritten the blueprint for rap success they made it so easy for everyone else to check it out their library and either follow it or build upon it. For whatever reason it’s been almost 20 years since “Organix” was released and no one else has been able to do it how they do it. Many tried, a few came close, but ultimately none could really compare to Black Thought, ?uestlove, Malik B and family. As such The Roots declaring retirement was for me like losing a lifelong friend. “Rising Down” is a phenomenal album, but it broke my heart. The Roots weren’t coming back. They’d finally had it with the fucked up music industry and decided to get out before they got too bitter and jaded or wound up turning on each other. I couldn’t blame them but I couldn’t help feeling life just wouldn’t be the same.
To my wonderment and surprise though, The Roots came back. I was stunned to learn that they would be the in house band for “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” the new show that would debut once Conan O’Brien left his own late night talk show to take over vaunted TV program “The Tonight Show.” Well we all know how that worked out for O’Brien in the end, but none of that dustup ever affected Jimmy Fallon’s slot or The Roots welcome presence on talk show TV. It was a surprisingly natural fit that really shouldn’t have been that surprising given that The Roots have always relied on live music and their live band to create jams, taking an idea Stetsasonic once championed to the furthest extent possible it could be taken. Given the group can freestyle songs, cover other hip-hop artists and make new shit up at the drop of a dime in concert, how hard could it be to do the same for a studio audience every night? In fact it’s the most enviable of all gigs any band could ever have – guaranteed dates, a new crowd every night, a steady source of income and instead of going on tour the whole world comes to your door. The comfort and security of this environment turned out to be artistically inspiring for the legendary Roots crew, and “How I Got Over” is the result of finding their love all over again. PHILLY IS BACK BABY.
“Uh huh, they said he’s busy hold the line please
Call me crazy, I thought maybe he could mind read
Who does the blind lead? Show me a sign please
If everything is made in China are we Chinese?
And why do haters separate us like we siamese?
Technology turning the planet into zombies
Everybody all in everybody’s dirty laundry
Acid rain, earthquakes, hurricane, tsunamis
Terrorists, crime sprees, assaults and robberies
Cops yelling ‘stop freeze’, shoot him ‘fore he try to leave
Air quality so foul, I gotta try to breathe
Endangered species, and we running out of trees
If I could hold the world in the palm of these
hands, I would probably do away with these anomalies
Everybody checking for the new award nominees
Wars and atrocities, look at all the poverty
Ignoring the prophecies, more beef than broccoli
Corporate monopoly, weak world economy
Stock markets toppling, mad marijuana
OxyContin and Klonopin, everybody out of it”
“Dear God 2.0” is more than just a hip-hop song, more than just a new jam from the Roots band, it is a STATEMENT. The song soars over harp strings, floats over ?uest’s drumming, and the quizzically named Monsters of Folk sing the opening, closing and middle with a plaintive request for God to show him/herself. Thought will have none of it though – he’s training his highly observant eye on the world around him and stating the Godlessness of it in no uncertain terms. “Look how they got me on the Def Jam payment plan” raps Thought, admitting that he too has fallen victim to the system before he finally breaks down and apologizes for his lack of faith – then moments later goes right back to challenging the status quo. “Why is the world ugly when you made it in your image?” Good question, and one with no easy answers. Like they’ve always done since the earliest days, The Roots are pleasing you musically at the same time they stimulate you intellectually. The message doesn’t usurp the groove or vice versa – they compliment each other like yin and yang – one simply couldn’t exist without the other.
The Monsters of Folk aren’t the only guests they’ve invited to join the party on their triumphant return. Of course you’d expect Dice Raw to be on a handful of the songs, but it’s a pleasant surprise to catch underground favorite Blu on “Radio Daze” and Little Brother frontman/fan favorite Phonte on “Now or Never.” It’s even more unexpected to hear indie folk singer Joanna Newsom sharing billing with the rapping of STS on “Right On,” though her wailing vocals fit perfectly over the tight Roots melody. So too does John Legend find himself comfortable over the upbeat, anthemic, and damn slamming track “The Fire.” Although his hook makes it right for the radio, Black Thought’s clearly the star:
“Yeah, and if I’m ever at the crossroads
and start feeling mixed signals like Morse code
My soul start to grow colder than the North Pole
I try to focus on the hole of where the torch goes
In the tradition of these legendary sports pros
As far as I can see, I’ve made it to the threshold
Lord knows I’ve waited for this a lifetime
And I’m an icon when I let my light shine
Shine bright as an example of a champion
Taking the advantage, never copping out or canceling
Burn like a chariot, learn how to carry it
Maverick, always above and beyond average
Fuel to the flame that I train with and travel with
Something in my eyes say I’m so close to having the prize
I realise I’m supposed to reach for the skies
Never let somebody try to tell you otherwise”
Damn it’s good to have The Roots back! The Roots represent everything that one could love about hip-hop music. Quite simply if The Roots aren’t for you, then rap isn’t for you either, you should probably give some other genre a shot. The funny thing is that The Roots succeed by being able to incorporate folk, R&B, funk, swing, scat, dance and jazz into their fold, achieving a band and musical gestalt that has always been greater than the sum of its parts, making even 41 second interludes like “Tunnel Vision” a true pleasure to listen to. “They say life’s a bitch/but it’s one life to live” quips Thought on the finale “Hustla,” and that as much as anything defines why The Roots unretired themselves from putting out new albums. As long as you’re here you might as well make music, and as long as you’re good at it you might as well shake up the world by putting out theBEST music. The Roots aren’t just cashing in from their newfound Jimmy Fallon fame, they’re doing what they do best that nobody else in or outside the Illadeph-side can do. They may do “Dear God 2.0” here but if there’s a version 3.0 it would be “Thank God (For the Legendary Roots Crew).” Welcome them back with open arms.