Review Summary: All in all this is another good album by one of the greatest hip-hop acts of all time, that could have been made truly mind-blowing with a couple adjustments.
There’s nothing as steady and consistent in hip-hop as the legendary Roots crew. Despite being the anomaly of a rap group that’s a live band, they’ve lasted nearly 20 years without being a commercial force in a genre that’s known for artists with short shelf lives regardless of their talent. There’s just not much to be said at this point. Here on their 11th album, it’s almost a guarantee that it’ll be good if not great effort for possibly the most critically acclaimed hip-hop act of all-time. Surprisingly this is their first concept albums, which comes as a shock for a group so experimental and ambitious containing such a lengthy catalog. Redford Stephens, a fictional character born into a life of little opportunity, is the protagonist and his life is chronicled from death to birth.
All tracks are produced by The Roots drummer ?uestlove and collaborators unless noted
The story starts with the character’s death signaled by a flatline and the sound of organs welcoming him to heaven.
Roots lead vocalist, Black Thought, rapping from the point of view of the character acknowledges he is in his final few living moments. His lone verse sandwiched in between a chorus of soulful vocals regretfully admits his demise and questions if anyone will care that he’s gone. At just over two minutes with one verse, it toes the line between a song and an intro or interlude.
3. Make My (feat. Big K.R.I.T.)
Over mellow instrumentation and another old-school soulful vocal, K.R.I.T. and Black Thought try to justify their illegal activity with the high standard of living it has brought them. K.R.I.T.’s verse trumps Black Thought’s as he’s able to slip into the mind of character with more ease. Black Thought’s verse is then followed by a lengthy near two minute outro.
4. One Time (feat. Phonte, Dice Raw)
All three MCs show up with vivid narrations of why Redford Stephens can’t go back to a normal life once he’s tasted what he believes is the best life has to offer him. He knows what he does is wrong, what exactly this is, is never revealed throughout the album, but it’s the only way he sees himself being successful given his situation. There’s another soul-tinged chorus, as with every other song on the album. However, while most neither take away nor add to the narratives, this one does it’s purpose. Most of the hooks on this album just exist, however this one really lends a voice to the character as he declares that if he ever did catch a break in life it would not do him much good, because it would be the only one he’d ever get.
5. Kool On (feat. Greg Porn, Truck North)
This is the most celebratory track on the album, which isn’t saying a whole lot as it doesn’t stray very far from the mellow soul and jazz vibe of that is becoming a sonic theme. Here we find the character congratulating himself on his success now that he thinks he’s made it. Three separate verses are put in between a cooing chorus declaring that stars are made to shine. While the frequent Roots collaborators Greg Porn and Truck North turn in solid verses, the fact that they cannot match Black Thought’s sense of urgency despite more or less saying the same thing makes the song good, but prevents it from being great.
6. The OtherSide (feat. Bilal, Greg Porn)
Neo-soul singer Bilal gets the only credited feature for a singer on the album. Leaving one to believe the sung choruses on the other eight songs are samples, and this chorus certainly sounds more alive than any other chorus on the album. The Roots band’s playing sounds a little more urgent as the character is still hungry and trying to reach the position that he eventually gets to on the previous track. Again Greg Porn turns in a solid verse, but is outshined by Black Thought’s superb display of emotion.
7. Stomp (feat. Greg Porn)
Produced by Sean C & LV
This is darkest and most aggressive track on the album; over stomping percussion and rock guitar, Black Thought and Greg Porn are allowed more room to rhyme with the shortest hook on the album. Porn finally matches Black Thought’s intensity, as they depict how the character comes to the realization that he must take the opportunities he is given in order to survive. The song is brief and it’s becoming a trend on the album that the verses only scratch the surface of periods in the character’s life. Some of the songs could have been more powerful if more detail was provided via longer or denser verses.
8. Lighthouse (feat. Dice Raw)
Over a gloomy atmosphere longtime Roots collaborator Dice Raw gets two verses and becomes one of the few guests on the album to keep up with Black Thought. Here Redford Stephens has yet to dive into criminal activity and doesn’t see any hope in the impoverished world he lives in. The two MCs deliver effective metaphor heavy lines about drowning in an ocean. However the chorus, which sounds like an indie rock sample, sounds out of place and extends the ocean metaphor too far with lines about nobody being in the lighthouse to save you from drowning.
9. I Remember
With a vibe closer to contemporary R&B than anything else on the album, sounds a little repetitive due to the chorus. The song is solid due to the band’s competence and Black Thought’s powerful narrative skills, but doesn’t add anything to the album as a whole. It’s just another quick, mellow, chorus-heavy song about desperation that doesn’t seem to illustrate any particular point in the character’s life.
10. Tip the Scale (feat. Dice Raw)
The last song (not last track) ends on the album on a strong note as the protagonist wonders how he can make the best of the situation that he was born into. This is also one of the all too few times where the chorus sounds like the thoughts of the character himself.
11-14. Redford (For Yia-Yia & Papou), Possibility (2nd Movement), Will to Power (3rd Movement), Finality (4th Movement)
Track 11 produced by Sufjan Stevens
The last four tracks flow into one another and accumulate into a brilliant five and a half minute outro. From pensive piano backed by gentle strings to an unhinged duel between piano and drums before finally fading out with violins, the sonic versatility should have been showcased further on the rest of the album.
The Roots are probably incapable of making anything less than good. Being too talented, ambitious, and focused will do that. While, this is still definitely a win for the band, this might be one of the few reviews you see that says calls this a good album as opposed to a great one. The soulful choruses on every song never had a negative effect, but remained neutral on most of them. If they were cut back or if the songs were just allowed to be longer Black Thought and the other rappers would have had more room to delve further into the psyche of the character and make the story more compelling. When the verses are finished the listener is left wanting to hear more, but then the story moves onto a previous instance in the character’s life. While the band’s playing was great as always a little more sonic variety or a couple more aggressive songs would have enhanced the emotional roller coaster that was the character’s life. The mellow laid back vibe fit in most spots, but there were certainly more instances in the Redford Stephen’s tragic life that could have been backed by something of a darker tone. All in all this is another good album by one of the greatest hip-hop acts of all time, that could have been made truly mind-blowing with a couple adjustments.
Rating - 7.5/10