Rating: 3.75 out of 4
This has been a strange millennium. The average Post-9/11 American is a mass of fucked up nerves, barely settling for its Paxil coma while its tied tightly around its need for immediate safety, satisfaction, and Starbucks; its one ear plugged into Clear Channel airwaves, fast food entertainment and news while a cell phone yaps away in its other indifferent ear, its face full of reality TV as it uncontrollably twitches with every flying plane heard zooming overhead or sheds a tear with every mention of the word “levee.” It’s been five years since the era-defining tragedy-turned-political strategy occurred, a full year since Hurricane Katrina exposed economic hardships at home and our lack of disaster preparedness, and we’re no more safe or certain about anything except that we’re very uncertain.
As The Roots so succinctly put it: ”It don’t feel right.”
Uncertain times create mood. I can only imagine that that mood probably sounds a lot like Game Theory.
Game Theory, the 7th album from Philly-based hip-hop collective, The Roots, is an unstoppable sign o’ the times laced with a strong dose of Travis Bickle unease that takes a cue from Chuck D and truly evokes the “Black CNN” aspect of hip-hop he used to speak about. Hell, they even borrowed some inspiration from “Don’t Believe the Hype” for the first track, “False Media.” It only makes sense that they would channel Public Enemy, champions of the info-rap editorial.
Following 2004’s misfire, The Tipping Point, and record label troubles, The Roots have finally found a home at Def Jam and now seem to have some control over the music they want to make. Forsaking the jazz-hop edge that ran rampant in their first four albums, and the experimental hodge-podge that made some scratch their heads with 2002’s mind-blowing Phrenology, The Roots seem as focused and as determined as ever. There’s urgency to most of this album as it fires its bullets, providing fast-paced tracks for Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter to tear through with brilliant fluidity and confidence. Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson’s exceptional drum kit keeps it rolling as guitars and keys provide ample harmony and atmosphere, proving their edge on the competition in a genre largely run by samplers and producers running out of fresh ideas. Also adding to the musical edge is Larry Gold, composer and cellist, playing the role that George Martin played so well with The Beatles, by conducting and arranging the string section.
Malik B. makes a welcome return on “Game Theory,” the album’s title track, sounding like he’d never left in the first place. Building on the mood of the album’s dark mission statement, the aforementioned “False Media,” “Game Theory” comes on strong with a couple-touch organ and fuzz guitar accenting Leonard “Hub” Hubbard’s thumping bass line and the Sly Stone sample that wanders in the background during the tom-heavy chorus spots.
“Don’t Feel Right,” the album’s first single, samples Kool & The Gang and The Ohio Players over “Nawlins,” doom-laden piano. Maimouna Yousef provides a sometimes overlong but nicely sung hook. “In The Music,” featuring Malik B. and rapper Porn, goes into a deep echo drum with “Captain” Kirk Douglas channeling Knight Rider for his riff. Porn cries out the hook, offering some desperation to the hopelessness already established with Thought’s first stanza:
”They say the city make a dark impression/The youth just lost and they want direction/But they don’t get the police they get the protection/And walk around with heat like Charlton Heston…”
Observations like this are scattered throughout the album, delivered with watered-down vitriol so as to ease the sting. Thought doesn’t hold back from what he has to say, but he chooses his words wisely, coming off as an urban-centric intellectual as opposed to some snotty street punk that’s watched Fahrenheit 9/11 a couple times too many.
Rahzel, human beatbox extraordinaire, makes an appearance on “Take It There,” a rather quick song that takes some interesting turns with guitar and strings, changing up its slow and mellow beginning with an abrupt and loud second half. Wadud Ahmad, playing Public Enemy’s Harry Allen, Media Assassin role, breaks into the middle with FM commentary about ”a people disenfranchised from the free world.”
“Baby,” probably the album’s most bubblegum stuck track, finds Thought at his least emotive. The hook sounds bored, subdued by its lazy, Latin-flavored, sunshine daze. “Here I Come” livens the album back up, using techno-synthesized squeals and rock drumming to get in your face and more or less stay there for the next 4:11. Malik B., having been away from The Roots due to his bout with drug addiction, tosses some confession into the mix:
”Black Inc raw life/In this whatchumacallit/Weed smokin’ junkie alcoholic/One foot in the grave/One foot in the toilet/Still I’m onstage/In front of an audience…”
Peedi Peedi, ex-member of State Property and rumored new addition to the Roots crew, makes an appearance on “Long Time,” a syncopated and slightly jazzed number also featuring Philly-based R&B star, Bunny Sigler. The track calms the album’s punch while providing some flushed out guitar work and beautiful string work a la Larry Gold.
The album takes a turn for the Beck with the hippy-glazed “Livin’ In the New World” and then “Clock With No Hands,” a wonderfully realized little testament to sad reflections of the past, has Merecedes Martinez of The Jazzyfatnastees providing some beautiful vocal work. Detracting from the societal and paranoid mood of the first half of Game Theory, “Clock With No Hands” adds intimacy to the album, an intimacy that is carried out with the slow, contemplative nature of the Radiohead-sampled “Atonement.”
“Can’t Stop This,” a tribute to late hip-hop producer J Dilla, unfortunately causes the album to stray from its course. Its well-intentioned existence is drenched with an undeniable air of Hallmark all over it. Smattered with an abundance of personal messages to J Dilla, its sincerity is unquestionable, but its content fails to make as much of a personal impression as the rest of the album.
J Dilla, a.k.a. Jay-Dee, is Game Theory’s inspiration, he himself having produced the album’s beginning interlude, “Dilltastic Vol Won(derful)” and the concluding “Can’t Stop This.” In between, The Roots rise from The Tipping Point’s ashes and make an innovative statement, establishing that art and music do indeed still have a place in the otherwise misled world of mainstream rap music.
To me, The Roots are one of the few hopes hip-hop can still hold on to. Being that they do try and maintain their raw street sensibilities while distancing themselves from the highly plastic and monotonous world of material celebration and gangsta flare, one can only hope that Def Jam allows them to pursue their vision. The Roots suffer for their continuing efforts of keeping music and innovation, the essential foundation of hip-hop, alive and that’s unfortunate. Yet another sign o’ the times from a world of uncertainty.
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