The Roots, How I Got Over
There may be no greater coup in late-night television history (beside maybe TBS pulling in Conan) than the more-oft-awkward-than-funny Jimmy Fallon recruiting legendary live hop-hop band The Roots as his house band. Arguably the greatest live hip-hop act of all time, The Roots have ruled the road the last 20 years with their dynamic and versatile performances, highlighted by the sensational drumming of Questlove and the relentless underrated flow of Black Thought (the band‘s two remaining original members), as well as the help of several great additions over the years, like the mean shredding of guitarist Kirk Franklin, aka Captain Kirk, and the fat tuba bass lines provided by Damon Bryson, aka Tuba Gooding Jr. While the rest of the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon package are mediocre at best, The Roots have still found a pretty great gig; a steady paycheck that doesn’t take the toll that the road does, and the opportunity to meet several celebrities and play with great musical acts that come on the show, already playing with everyone from Paul Simon to Public Enemy. Even if this appeared to be a good move for the band, one had to wonder if a cushy gig on NBC wouldn’t soften the band’s creative edge and negatively affect their music in the studio. Fortunately for us, How I Got Over, The Roots' ninth and possibly final studio album, shows The Roots to still be a wrecking-ball force especially with the band employing help from some of the musical acts they have met on Late Night.
The angelic yet eerie voices of the three women from Brooklyn’s Dirty Projectors opens How I Got Over on a rather subdued moment with “A Peace Of Light,” but leads beautifully into “Walk Alone," a definite highlight, that utilizes the help of Roots collaborator Dice Raw over a melancholy piano melody.
While the opening two songs are a bit somber and dark, much like The Roots’ last two efforts, Game Theory and Rising Down, How I Got Over, for the most part, sees the dark cloud of sound from the past two albums lifted in favor of a more hopeful, positive direction for the band, more in line with their work in the early 2000s which, like How I Got Over, had flourishes of gospel and soul. The band has equated the darkness in their sound on the past two albums to the state of the nation under President Bush and the new direction on How I Got Over to the new hope in the African-American community that has come with President Obama. This new optimism can be heard especially on tracks like “Now Or Never” and “The Day,” which both express an urgency that now is the time to change yourself and the world for the better. It is reminiscent of the urgency of the likes of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye in soul music during the Civil Rights movement.
The album itself gets its name from a gospel hymn written by Reverend W. Herbert Brewster at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. The title track is one of the album’s best and is a fine display of the excellent socially conscious hip-hop that Black Thought has been spitting for two decades, talking about the need to get over the apathy of streets and to start caring about the world around us. (Though, despite the hymn title, the album still contains some harsh language, so be forewarned.)
Like late-night television, music guests are plentiful on How I Got Over, including the Dirty Projectors, Jim James (Monsters of Folk, My Morning Jacket), John Legend and Joanna Newsom. These relationships are perhaps thanks to late-night, as The Roots played with Monsters of Folk on Jimmy Fallon and the Dirty Projectors impressed Questlove when they performed on Fallon. In this vein, their new gig has clearly helped them on this new record. “Dear God 2.0,” The Roots' hip-hop update to Monsters of Folk’s “Dear God,” is a bit too sample-heavy from MOF’s version for its own good, but contains plenty of genuine sentiments and tough questions about the existence of God from Black Thought: Why is the world ugly when you made it in Your image? / And why is livin' life such a fight to the finish? / For this high percentage / When the sky's the limit / A second is a minute, every hour's infinite.
“Right On” features the otherworldly vocals from eccentric harpist Joann Newsom, with a sample from her own “The Book of Right On,” over an old-school hip-hop sample that may sound like a definite disaster, but the two components actually meld quite nicely.
The album, while remaining strong for much of its span, sputters out a bit at its close. John Legend gets back-to-back guest spots on “Doing It Again” and “The Fire,” but both rely on the strength of the hook, which is mediocre at best. “Web 20/20” is non-stop flow from Black Thought and Company, but the song gets lost in its overly repetitive sample. While How I Got Over does not meet up to the level of the group’s finest work (2002’s Phrenology or 2006’s Game Theory), the band has in no way lost their edge and have only added to their repertoire. Now they should just join CoCo over on TBS.