Artist: The Roots
Rating: 5.5 / 10
Reviewer: DJ MF
The study of the shape and protuberances of the skull, based on the now discredited belief that they reveal character and mental capacity.
What does the above have to do with “Phrenology”, the latest from the Roots? Damned if I know. I just thought it would look cool and pretentious at the top of the review.
So, enough about the name, you’re probably saying about now. And you’d be right. “Phrenology” is the follow-up to the hugely successful “Things Fall Apart” LP from a couple of years back, the album that brought the Roots to the mainstream. Upon first glance at the tracklisting, I cannot lie to you – I thought we were in for a big load of poop. Shite. Crap. Dung. You probably will too – full of guest spots, mostly from R&B singers, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be thinking that the Roots were headed more and more towards the morass of the worst of “Things Fall Apart” : sappy R&B infused tracks with sleep inducing production.
Surprisingly, that’s not ENTIRELY the case. But don’t take that as an unequivocal show of support either.
With “Phrenology”, the Roots have constructed one of the more schizophrenic releases of the last couple of years.
Things start off on an absolutely horrid note, apart from the fantastic ‘Rock You’, which is Black Thought and his mates at their finest, with driving percussion, pounding bass, and straight up venom on the battle tip. The rest of the opening portion of the album however succumbs to ill placed ‘intermissions’ such as ‘!!!!!’ and ‘WAOK Roll Call’, and the insipid music of tracks such as ‘Sacrifice’ featuring Nelly Furtado, and ‘Rolling With Heat’ featuring no-flow MC of the moment Talib Kweli. The former is just absolutely brutal, and will probably have you questioning exactly who stole the testosterone producing portions of the Roots crew.
However, a little before the midpoint portion of the LP, things do a complete 180. Granted, the renaissance is started by an older track, in this case ‘Thought At Work’, which bangs as hard here as it did a year ago when it was rumoured to be on Thought’s solo LP :albeit without the original sample. A couple of more groove oriented tracks then follow, with the smooth flowing ‘Seed 2.0’ featuring Cody Chestnutt, and the lead single of the LP, ‘Break You Off’, the latter which was a track that I absolutely loathed when it first was released, but has now grown on me, with it’s smoother sound, and Black Thought actually rhyming about something rather than his usual braggadocio banter.
The real treat of the LP however is ‘Water’, a 10 minute opus with a bouncy beat and just a generally funky vibe with some nice percussion. Thought is pretty much average here, but the beat makes up for it, and the switch up to an atmospheric vibe at the 4 minute mark changes the track into basically a noise performance art piece, with some heavy duty staccato drumming, and well placed samples. The last 6 minutes might not be for everyone, but for myself, having seen the Roots devolve from what they once were, it was a pleasant breath of fresh air.
Unfortunately the 180 occurs again on the final few tracks, with only ‘Quills’ and ‘Pussy Galore’ being of note, and the former not being anything all that special in the end anyways. ‘Pussy Galore’ you’ve heard before too : it was leaked sometime last year, and it’s aged just as nicely as ‘Thought At Work’, maybe even moreso.
The last two tracks however? Ugh. ‘Complexity’, featuring Jill Scott is more of that crappy ‘neo-soul’ that Okayplayer has been shoving down our throats as ‘next level’ for the last 2 years, albeit with a nice take on relationships again, and ‘Something In The Way of Things’ featuring Amiri Baraka is basically a techno instrumental piece. Yes, a TECHNO piece. I’m not averse to having the Roots show off their chops with the instruments, but it’d be nicer if they kept it within the realm of hip hop.
In the end, much like “God’s Son”, “Phrenology” is an album with 2 faces – one beautiful, and one reminiscent of an MC from Florida with a moustache. The other issue at hand is the number of tracks – 15 total, but with 3 interludes, one 7 minute electronica cut, and 2 older cuts. That just doesn’t cut it in the end, and only makes the weak first half of the album and weak end of the album stand out more.
The final take? The Roots have created a half-hearted effort with “Phrenology”, showcasing the fact that they still do have the talent to make a great album, but that they may not necessarily be willing to do so anymore. This album will grow on you for sure : it did for me, but in the end it’s shortcomings are too big to ignore.