Fans of rock music (using 'rock' in the broadest sense) have an unfortunate habit of dismissing other forms of music as trash. Perhaps pop aside, hip-hop comes in for the most criticism. In some cases, the amateur elitists have a point; rap can be violent, creatively bankrupt, racist, and misogynistic. Depending on where you live, you can turn on BET or MTV Base, and the first thing you're likely to see is a half-dressed black woman being treated as a barely autonomous sex object.
They're missing the point, though. Turn on your local rock station, and you'll probably see Hoobastank, Good Charlotte, or some other band those same people dismiss as drivel. Hip-hop is no different, and when those in the know discuss great hip-hop acts, The Roots are usually the first name to roll off the tongue.
If The Roots are mentioned while trying to enlighten someone who dismisses all rap, the first thing that's likely to be said is that The Roots are a band, in the most traditional sense of the word. On Phrenology, they have 6 members. Only one is a rapper, and only one is a DJ. Apart from this, they've got a guitarist, a keyboard player, a drummer, and a bassist. Any assumption that all of them suck at their respective instruments and wouldn't last a day in a rock band is quelled by the fact that their guitarist, Ben Kenney, now plays bass full-time for Incubus. It's also proved wrong by their live shows, featuring lengthy virtuotic solo spots for each member.
Besides, in a lot of ways, The Roots are on your side. They've expressed their disgust at both the lack of black people learning and playing instruments these days, and hip-hop dependance on sampling. Oh, and thanks to bad experiences, they hate mainstream record labels.
If you want to know more about this band, Phrenology is where you want to be. It's not The Roots' best album - that honour goes to Things Fall Apart - but it serves as the best introduction to their work; it's their most commercially friendly, punchy, instantly memorable album. That, and it's got one of the most spectacularly attention-grabbing opening sequences ever. Rock You is a fairly typical album opener - it's hard, catchy, and it hits big. Once that's done, there's a blast of pure hardcore, barely 20 seconds long, that wouldn't be out of place on a Bad Brains or Minor Threat album. In fact, both are namechecked in the liners as influences, along with Inside Out. This, in turn, collapses into the Marvin Gaye-influenced soul-hop track, Sacrifice. These all run together as one song. It's the aural equivalent of being clubbed in the back of the head, and not having time to figure out what it was that hit you. And, make no mistake about it, it's the calculated sound of a band who know just how good they are, and want everyone else to know too.
This isn't even the best part of the album. That, my friends, is The Seed (2.0), featuring Cody ChessnuTT. Yes, it's a cover version, and yes, if you sit and dissect it, it can be seen as misogynistic. But if there's been a better song that's been released as a single this decade, I've yet to hear it. The subject matter is both charmingly bone-headed, and bizarrely epic, and the delivery is as soulful and tender as it possibly have been. The guitars are simple enough to be catchy (at least in the verses, where they work a Dm-Am progression), rhythmic enough to be funky, and bone-dry enough to sound like Queens Of The Stone Age covering James Brown. I can't tell you how much I love this song. I really can't.
Hardcore Roots fans won't be disappointed, though. Although The Seed (2.0), Break You Off, and Rock You all court a wider audience, there is enough to satsify those more used to the styles presented on previous albums. Something In The Way of Things and Complexity, especially - although you have to wait for them seeing as they're so near the end, they're worth it.
And hell, fans of mainstream hip-hop will find much to love here too. Rock You has been mentioned already, but there's also an untitled track, hidden before Track 19 and after Track 18 (the track time appears in negative numbers) that sounds like a toned-down version of the Busta Rhymes/MOP song, Ante Up. It then works itself into a pumping techno track....heh. We'll overlook that. If you're wondering, tracks 16 through 18 are silent.
Edit: Rapreviews.com tells me this hidden track is called 'Rhymes And Ammo'.
Overall, though, this is Phrenology's main flaw. It tries to do too much, and tries to appeal to everybody. Yet, it seems most people will be put off by something
on this album - some tracks will be too commercial, or too obscure, or too diverse, or too typical. Ultimately, then, the strength of this album is also the weakness. The Roots were probably hoping to attract a wider audience with this release (which may have something to do with the label), but of course, they had to appeal to the hardcore too. While they appeal to both, for sure, they fall short of sending both into rapture. And make no mistake about it - The Roots' earlier releases are deified time and again by underground rap fans. This won't fall into the same category, unless those same fans learn to embrace a slightly more commercial sound (yes, elitism exists in rap, too). Similarly, it won't be truly loved by mainstream fans unless they're willing to scratch beneath the surface and go to areas they're likely to have never been before as listeners. It's a noble effort, and some mainstream rap heads may well have been introduced to new sounds and ideas through it, but you can't help but feel it's a little pretentious that those demands are placed on both groups of fans. Still, there's some great material, and as an introduction to The Roots, or indeed hip-hop in general, this album comes highly recommended.
Within The Genre - 3.5/5
Outside The Genre - 4.5/5
Recommended Downloads -
The Seed (2.0) (Featuring Cody ChessnuTT)
See what I said above, basically. I can't overstate how in love I am with this song. On another note, Cody ChessnuTT has been described both as the new Prince, and as the new Jimi Hendrix. I was disappointed with his album, The Headphone Masterpiece, as it was too low-budget and too chauvanistic, but he's certainly one to watch.
Something In The Way Of Things (In Town)
A spoken word poem, handled vocally by Amiri Baraka, rather than The Roots' usual collaborator on album closers, Ursula Rucker. Given a light, jazzy, jam-session flavoured backing by the instrumentalists in the group, Baraka delivers the poem with authority and conviction. This shows The Roots' spirit of experimentation in a more subtle and lasting way than !!!!!!! does, hence the recommendation. The way the music gets mixed up to follow the poem is pretty subtle in places, but worth looking out for. It shows a natural flair and depth of songwriting talent to The Roots that's lacking in most bands, of any genre.
Complexity (Featuring Jill Scott)
Yup, fellow Okayplayer Jill Scott shows up to provide the chorus to this track. It just edges out Sacrifice as the album's most laid-back, soulful track. Black Thought's voice is soft-spoken and silky on this track, and plays off well with Jill Scott's clear melodies. Being blunt, you could quite easily have sex to it.
The Roots - Things Fall Apart
Jurassic 5 - Quality Control
Black Star - Mos Def And Talib Kweli Are Black Star