Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Roots

  • Do You Want More?!!!??! [DGC, 1995] Neither
  • Illadelph Halflife [DGC, 1996] Neither
  • Things Fall Apart [MCA, 1999] B+
  • The Roots Come Alive: Open Access [MCA, 1999] **
  • Phrenology [MCA, 2002] A-
  • The Tipping Point [Geffen, 2004] A-
  • Game Theory [Def Jam, 2006] A-
  • Rising Down [Def Jam, 2008] A
  • How I Got Over [Def Jam, 2010] A
  • Undun [Def Jam, 2011] B+
  • . . . And Then You Shoot Your Cousin [Def Jam, 2014] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Do You Want More?!!!??! [DGC, 1995] Neither

Illadelph Halflife [DGC, 1996] Neither

Things Fall Apart [MCA, 1999]
Stop the violence in hip hop, but make an exception if these guys will shoot the piano player. Kamal gets away with his omnipresent ostinato beds here mostly because the band is looking back to the old-school rap they loved before they discovered jazz lite. They even sample now and then--I've never been so happy to run into Schoolly-D in my life. What's so consistently annoying on their earlier intelligent records is almost hooky on this one, integral to a flow that certainly does just that, which isn't to say you won't be relieved when it rocks the house instead. Gee--maybe they've gotten more intelligent. B+

The Roots Come Alive: Open Access [MCA, 1999]
World-class DJ and beatbox, excellent drummer and bassist, pretty darn good rapper(s), bourgie jazzmatazz ("Proceed," "Love of My Life"). **

Phrenology [MCA, 2002]
The Bad Brains homage "!!!" ends in the nick of 25 seconds, "Quills" is sadistic in an arty way--two more sinful episodes in a cheating-song cycle where new blood Ben Kenney's guitar takes hip hop from behind and calls the baby rock and roll. This isn't some critical metaphor. It's the plot of the tale of betrayal and recompense told by 2002's freshest roots rock track and jammingest avant rap track--the album's centerpiece, "The Seed (2.0)." The backstory, if there is one, you can get from the gossip industry. I'll just note that on this record Kamal's keyb hooks could pass for piano. And believe that after years of racial mythology, they've found it in their talent to put black music's long tradition of tune and structure into practice. A-

The Tipping Point [Geffen, 2004]
Foolhardy though it was to saddle such an uncrucial record with a title that dares the young and the restless to bitch about how it doesn't change the world, the rest of us are free to enjoy how confidently it develops a groove. Theme-setting Sly remake leads to varied confluences of democracy and Black Thought (try the hummed and mumbled hook of "Don't Say Nuthin'") that swing up at the end through two attention getters certain to dismay the restless--Timbabeats, how 2003! Then, to remind us they're a hip-hop band, there's a bonus cut for their sole virtuoso--which means ?uestlove, not Kamal. They understand what they can do, and what they can't. That's 2004 enough for me. A-

Game Theory [Def Jam, 2006]
On The Tipping Point, Black Thought establishes his prerogatives with well-honed braggadoccio that's kinda dull anyway. Here, freed from Jimmy Iovine and told by Jay-Z to do what he wants, he recedes toward the background, an observer looking out at a black Philly that hasn't risen like he has and just "Don't Feel Right," as he calls the first of three straight ominous, drum-powered, social-realist reports whose tone maintains until the J. Dilla encomium that closes. Even the summery "Livin' in the New World" turns out to be about the surveillance state. Not hooky enough, as it doesn't take Jimmy Iovine to figure out. Strong enough to compensate, though. A-

Rising Down [Def Jam, 2008]
Integrating 11 rappers into a groove defined by ?uestlove's spontaneous bop beatery and lowing synth sounds that evoke My Bloody Valentine the way those high ostinatos used to give it up to Roy Ayers, this is as pleasurable as prime OutKast or Kanye West. The mood is political even though the rhymes barely reference any arm of government except the police. The Roots are no more sympathetic to the suicide bomber than to the killer nerd of Virginia Tech, both of whom share a song with a boy soldier in Sierra Leone they're not crazy about either. But they know that just by reporting what they see and feel, they indict the government. With an incongruent Fall Out Boy track set aside for single duty and all those rappers a dream community taking the burden off Black Thought, this is the most accomplished pure hip-hop album in years. A

How I Got Over [Def Jam, 2010]
It's not like hop-hop and anxiety are strangers. But usually that means the mortal fear epitomized by the Notorious B.I.G., or the rampaging neuroses dramatized by Eminem, or the hand-to-mouth worries some alt-rappers cop to. Here it's garden-variety upper-middle-class anxiety. What's next? Am I doing the right thing? Can I pass my accomplishments on to my kids? Is the economy about to go phlooey? Is God on my side? Is God on anyone's side? These are exactly the querulous feelings associated with the alt-rock famously present on the Roots' ninth album in the form of the Dirty Projectors, the Monsters of Folk, and the perfectly sampled Joanna Newsom. Difference is, complex-rhyming Black Thought and his many gifted guest MCs express them more directly, thoughtfully, eloquently, and entertainingly than any of those tyros. And then they up the ante and confront their anxieties with a fortitude and even optimism embodied by Kamal Gray's keyboards, never my idea of this band's strength, and, especially, ?uestlove's drums. I love sampled beats. But 90 percent of the time I'd rather ride Ahmir Thompson's hand, feet, and brain. A

Undun [Def Jam, 2011]
It speaks well for their strength of mind that Jimmy Fallon hasn't just been good for their economic viability--he's been good for their music. But superb though their 2008 and 2010 records were, and admirable though their equipoise has been, concept albums are such sinkholes that the partial success of this reverse-chronological tale of a doomed small-time hood is more surprising than its partial failure. Maybe I could work out plausible meanings for every song like some exegete brushing the cobwebs off "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." But all song cycles have holes in them, and really, just exactly what level of sagacity do we expect from Black Thought--or Bob Dylan, for that matter? What I get from Black Thought, as usual, is flashes of insight and articulated feeling. The sharpest verse here is Dice Raw's on "One Time," which along with "The Otherside" is the closest the song cycle comes to a stand-alone song. So what I get from the album as a whole isn't a feel for the fictional Redford Stephens. It's the pop refrains, Euro orchestrations, and simplified drumming absorbed by a sound that shows no sign of standing pat. B+

. . . And Then You Shoot Your Cousin [Def Jam, 2014]
With Questlove forswearing all songwriting, with Black Thought sharing the few true raps with benchwarmers Dice Raw and Greg Porn, with cameos and guest tracks and goddamn musique concrête bringing the runt up to weight, with the moral burden of the climax handed over to a neosoul obscurity who lost his label deal in 2010, feel free to slot this 33-minute "concept album" as half-assed product squeezed into their bizzy schedule. Historically, that may even be how it happened. Yet musically it coheres better than the ass-and-a-half Undun--a touching, upsetting meditation in which a sketchy gangsta wannabe embodies the limits of all striving. Every time the musique concrête squelches in, I remember how fraught the world is. Every time Raheem DeVaughn croons about our need for angels, I feel thankful for what I got. A-

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