?uestlove's beats encompass not only the history of hip-hop but also his well-known omnivorous musical appetite - "Atonement" jacks Radiohead's "You and Whose Army?," and "Livin' In a New World" would not sound out of place on a Beck album. The most impressive developments come courtesy of Black Thought: he takes the wordplay wizardry he's mined on previous tracks like "Thought @ Work" and "Web" and actually puts them to the service of commentary and observation on "False Media," "Don't Feel Right," "Take It There" and "Clock With No Hands." He seems to have outgrown the self-referential posturing that run throughout so many Roots albums (and plague other MCs, as well). This step forward for Black Thought takes the wind out of what would otherwise be a momentous occasion in hip-hop: the return of co-MC Malik B. Whereas on Things Fall Apart, the two MCs were equal, Malik's efforts on Game Theory pale in comparison to Thought and even other guest MCs like Dice Raw. Malik resorts to gangsta stream-of-consciousness rants that lack cohesion either as individual verses or with the other MCs on the track. I will admit that Malik's syncopated flow provides more surprises than Thought's more straight up-and-down delivery.
There are some weak spots on this record - the pacing of the back end of Game Theory is heavy on the slow tunes ("Clock With No Hands" --> "Atonement" --> the Dilla memorial "Can't Stop This") and kills the forward momentum of the disc. "In The Music"'s only redeeming quality is BT's opening verse; the hook (delivered by a new-to-me MC with the moniker Porn) is a throwaway; and then Malik steps up with lines about "bitches in Bonnevilles" and addressing some adversary named "Och." Conspicuously absent from the liner notes this time around are the in-depth ?uestlove annotations and diaries. Much like Tipping Point, the lyrics seem to have been transcribed by a clueless intern, and run without proofing by the MCs.
Even with these shortcomings, the Roots have finally delivered on record the promise of their live shows - killer beats, lacerating insights, and a handle on the history. They've raised the bar for hip-hop and Game Theory is easily in my top list for the year.
NB: This review is not affiliated with the Roots, Def Jam, Okayplayer, or any other publication. Portions appear as comments on The Roots' MySpace and as a comment to Brendan Murphy's review of Game Theory in Hour magazine.
In other news, music journalist and author Ann Powers has, apparently, relocated to L.A. (replacing Robert Hillburn at the Times) from Seattle and joined the blogosphere (well, she's been blogging for a year. I'm late on the uptake, I suppose.). Probably best known as the co-author of the Tori Amos autobiography, Piece by Piece, I met Ann at the McGill Joni Mitchell symposium a couple of years ago where she delivered a stunning paper about the importance of Blue. She joins the blog roll today.