First Appeared at The Music Box, February 2003, Volume 10, #2
Written by T.J. Simon
The story of America’s most widely acclaimed hip-hop band began when drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson and rapper Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter met as students at Philadelphia’s High School of Creative and Performing Arts in the 1980s. Together they formed the creative core of the most unique ensemble in hip-hop (The Roots), blending live instruments with rap vocals and DJ turntable acrobatics. The band’s sixth release Phrenology is a wild ride with several moments of absolute greatness surrounded by dull filler and hit-or-miss hip-hop experimentation.
Phrenology starts out on the right foot with Rock You, a kickin’ and thumpy rap song that will make your granny shadowbox the same way she did when she first heard Mama Said Knock You Out. Vocalist Black Thought promises "We will rock you," and the band delivers with unceasing energy. Thought at Work is another fantastic track featuring live percussion in the style of 1980s Go-Go music, an R&B sub-genre originating from Washington D.C. that never became a national phenomenon. The disc also showcases the best hip-hop number released in recent memory — The Seed (2.0) — featuring Cody ChestnuTT. The original version of the song appears on ChestnuTT’s critically acclaimed 2002 release Headphone Masterpiece, and The Roots’ collaboration is perhaps the most effective use of a live band, a DJ, rapped vocals, and soul singing ever to be recorded.
There are other enjoyable — but far from brilliant — moments on Phrenology that generally add to the amiability of the album. Sacrifice begins with promise then falls into a clichéd R&B female chorus by Nelly Furtado. Rolling the Heat is another decent tune featuring the vocals of Tab Kweli and raw lyrics straight from the ’hood (so you may not want to bust this disc out on a first date). The Roots allegedly spent $300,000 to record the song Break You Off, a decent R&B number climaxing with a flurry of cellos. Unfortunately, at nearly 7 ½ minutes, the track is way too long, and it’s followed by the insufferably indulgent Water, which clocks in at over 10 minutes.
Culling out the great rap music among all the discs released in a given year is like trying to find good meal in a foreign city: it may be out there, but good luck finding it on your own. Even considering the disc’s excesses, The Roots have produced an artistic and fully realized rap album brimming with urban edginess and fine musicianship. Here’s the final scorecard: Phrenology has five great tracks, five good tracks, three painful tracks, and five inconsequential filler tracks. All in all, it adds up to an album definitely worth owning. ½
Phrenology is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2003 The Music Box