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Review: The Roots' “False Media”


 

May 14, 2007.
 

 

By Mtume ya Salaam

 

 

The way I hear it, the opening three-track sequence of Game Theory, The Roots’ latest album, is about as close to perfect as hip-hop ever gets. It’s everything good rap music should be: raw, ragged, rhythmic and very, very intense. It’s also sophisticated and subtle—you just have to know what you’re listening to.

The Roots crew get things started with a short keyboard interlude that was  either borrowed from or performed by the late J. Dilla. The interlude briefly balances itself between serene and foreboding before tipping in the latter direction.

 

The vocal sample (I don’t know who it is) at the beginning of “False Media” is a nice touch: “I don’t think old men ought to promote war so that young men can fight it.” I like how it’s half-buried in the mix, making you have to listen a few times through to even figure out what it says.

When Black Thought finally starts rapping, he leads you to believe he’s doing one of those typical ‘I’m out to get paid’ rhymes:

 

 “If I can’t work to make it, I’ll rob and take it / Either that, or me and my children are starving and naked.”

The first time I heard it, I thought: “Well, alright. They’re sounding good, so I’ll let the complete lack of lyrical originality slide.” But a couple moments later Thought says: “Hey, it’s me—a monster y’all done created / I’ve been inaugurated.” Inaugurated?

 

I perked up a little. By the end of Thought’s verse, I was smiling at the cat’s audacity. He’d written a typical shit-talking ‘gangsta rap’ record, except from the first-person perspective of the Commander In Chief himself, George W. That’s good stuff.

From there, The Roots segue immediately into the title track, the hook of which is based on an early Sly Stone sample. (The Sly song is “Life Of Fortune And Fame,” but the hard rock groove reminds me of a different track. I’ll get into that in this week’s Classic.) On this one, pay attention to the way the entire first minute of the song is essentially a ‘false start.’

 

The arrangement begins in sombre, mid-tempo fashion and just when The Roots have you convinced you’re about to hear something mellow and introspective, the real song comes blasting in. Contrasting sounds come from every direction; Black Thought is sounding more hype than he has in a couple albums (“Voted most unlikely to succeed / ‘Cause my class was full of naysayers, cheaters and thieves”).

 

 I love the way they keep dropping in the Sly sample, although each time they do so it becomes more and more fractured and distorted. With its grinding guitars, multi-layered drums and off-kilter samples, “Game Theory” (the song) is a great example of post-P.E. ‘noise as music.’

Again, the Roots segue immediately into the next song, “Don’t Feel Right,” one of those records that quickly establishes a feeling of intense forward movement then never lets up until it’s over. All through the choruses, the tension just keeps building. I also love the sentiment of the song—that there’s something wrong, although it’s difficult at times to say exactly what it is. As Thought says in the first verse, “The struggle ain’t right up in your face, it’s more subtle.” The Roots MC saves some of his best rhymes of the album for the last verse:

 

“Sex, drugs, murder, politics and religion
Forms of hustlin’
Watch who you put all your trust in
Worldwide, we coincide with who’s sufferin’
Who never had shit and ain’t got nothin’…
I’m fired up thinking ‘bout the payback, ASAP
You fuck around and be an enemy of the state, black
Ill, but that’ll too real for TV
It’s crazy when you too real to be free
If you got no paper, then steal this CD
Listen man, I let you know how it feels to be me
It don’t feel right”

 

Source: Game Theory (Def Jam/Universal - 2006)

 

When B.T. ends one of his verses with a question—“Something don’t feel right out here / Know what I’m saying?”—I always want to answer that question. “Yeah, I do,” I want to say. “I know exactly you were saying.”

Mtume ya Salaam is a published writer and an expert on contemporary Black music. He lives in New Orleans, USA and can be reached at mtume_s@yahoo.com.

 

Please e-mail comments to comments@thenewblackmagazine.




Comments:

 

C. Liegh McInnis Says:

 

Yeah, I understand Kalamu in his notions about the Roots. I, for the life of me, don’t know why I don’t like the Roots. They are everything that I say I like about a musical artist. They are smart, they are musicians, they are unique, but they don’t butter my toast. And, it has nothing to do with my lack of love for rap/hip hop. Often, I find that I like an artist’s philosophy, but I do not like the manner in which they present or manifest their philosophy. John Legend is one. I know that I should like John Legend. He’s a wonderfully-crafted songwriter. He doesn’t write bullshit songs. He has a wonderful voice. I can see, hear, smell, feel, and taste the spirits of Stevie Wonder and other greats in his work, but all I can thing is “God, I hope other people buy his records because I’m not moved.” That’s how I feel about the Roots.

 

Yet, I think that my attitude toward the Roots and John Legend says that we can respect someone even if we don’t particularly like (are entertained by) their work. So, I respect the Roots for what they mean and are to music. They are a band in the traditional sense whose work continues to push to envelop. They are a rainbow of black music (sounds and ideas). And though I may not like their work, I recognize that it has a positive effect on art, culture, and me. So, I must at least be learned about the Roots so that I can, when the situation arises, be able to assert that they are worthy of a grant or a fellowship or airplay or whatever we do to make sure that worthwhile art gets exposed to the public. I guess there are two ways to dig something.

 

Adam S Says:

Saw them Live! Videos do not do justice to the musicianship and quality the Roots put out at a live show. There is so much Hip-Hop without Substance or Virtue these days…The Roots, Michael Franti, Mos Def…Music does not have to always carry a positive, thought-provoking message, but it’s a welcome surprise when it does!!

 

 

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