The Roots are a truly unique and remarkable entity in the history of American music. They are both the closest thing to the chaotically dynastic musical collectives of the past, like Funkadelic and the Family Stone, and highly exploratory modern artists. While they are diligently and progressively working within the structures of hiphop, they also somewhat transcend the notion of genre; they are pure musicians producing both records and performances of stirring power and feverish inspiration.
Last August found the release of their seventh proper album, and Def Jam debut, Game Theory. Largely received and described as an overarchingly dark album, it should perhaps more accurately be understood as overarchingly honest: a work of art suffused with the increasingly dystopian spirit of the times. Indeed, the level of joy still present on Game Theory is fairly remarkable as the product of intelligent and thoughtful individuals in the era of the USA PATRIOT Act.
After a tingly and tender introduction courtesy of the deeply mourned producer and close Roots ally J Dilla, Game Theory enters straight into the fray with "False Media," a terse attack on the cultural atmosphere of warmongering, static-throwing "information" sources like Fox News. The past-to-the-future links are apparent from the get-go as the song samples Public Enemy's epochal "Don't Believe the Hype" and features a chorus from spoken-word artist Wadud Ahmad that sounds like a more ominous version of the flat speech from PE's "Pollywanacraka."
On "Game Theory," former Roots MC Malik B escalates classic hiphop threats of lyrically murdering sucker MCs all the way to presidential-assassination fantasies, while on the exhilarating, heavy lead single, "Don't Feel Right," Black Thought elucidates the existential dread of government-supported ghetto poverty. The overriding feeling is of conspiratorial wisdom and subsequent environmental terror: helicopters endlessly circling overhead in the land of the unseen hand, the sensation of being, as Black Thought puts it, "a twinkle in the all-seeing eye." With an administration as explicitly and virulently unscrupulous and damaging to the world as this country's present one, it is not hard to understand why hiphop artists would make a record like this, rather, it's hard to understand how they could avoid it.
There are moments of relative happiness, as on the intro verse from "Take It There," which finds Black Thought truly poeticizing about the ecstasy-insinuating potential of music. Soon though, the track clouds over into an intense tirade against apathy and fatalism (unless it's the fatalism of live-free-or-die activism).
The album's sonic and musical character reflects its thematic subterranean homesickness, as well as a newfound level of unified strength in the Roots' instrumental ranks. They have evolved tremendously from the archetypal jazzy, live-hiphop arrangements of their major-label debut, Do You Want More?!!!??!, to a much more personal and new-feeling model. The Roots are undoubtedly the most fully realized hiphop band ever, but they also have absorbed and refashioned the sounds of contemporary art rock more stylishly than anyone since the golden era of Public Enemy.
While less adventurous major-label rap artists get down with the pop-punk jank of Fall Out Boy and Good Charlotte, or, at best, Coldplay's Chris Martin, the Roots are into Radiohead (whom they sampled for Game Theory's "Atonement") and Deerhoof (whom they recently handpicked to open for them at a couple of hometown Philly shows), artists whom they undeniably share both sonic and lyrical kinship with. Furthermore, unlike many modern hiphop artists, the Roots have the facility to truly reflect their lyrical content in their arrangements: As "Take It There" rises in emotional tenor, so too does the music's piano-pounding fervor.
Like countless musicians before them, the Roots are taking what is now the dominant global pop culture—hiphop—and using it as a medium to express the fear and pain of the populations of people systematically terrified and hurt by their own governments. Unlike a great deal of political rap (or political folk, punk, or anything else for that matter), however, the Roots achieve a masterful confluence of seething thought dispatch and beautiful, affecting art.