Friday, September 15, 2006

Do away with the nonsense

I picked up The Roots' Game Theory earlier in the week, and it may well be their strongest effort to date, and definitely their best work of this century. They've tightened the beats up, and provided some melodic and otherwise memorable hooks - compared to The Tipping Point's choruses which were led by a tripped-out Sly Stone, Martin Luther lamenting "Why?" ad nauseam, and BT's rhythmic mumbling on "Don't Say Nuthin'."

?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.


Mwanji Ezana said...

Nice review, David. I've been listening to GT intensely and intently. I'll post my own review soon, but I'll point out my one disagreement with you here:

Granted, Malik B doesn't bring coherent statements or story-telling, but his verse on "Here I Come" (talk about bad choruses...) is awesome. The way I see it is that he came into the studio for a little while, dropped some verses that were about flow rather than content (he recycles a lot of his old lines) and was done with it. Maybe we'll get more in-depth stuff in the future. "Ock" is generic term for guy he's used for a long time.

I'm surprised you didn't note how deeply textured and expressive the beats are. "False Media," "Game Theory" and the one that has a spoken word part in the middle barely even need lyrics to express the anger and paranoia. That spoken word interlude one, the beat that's introduced (with a timpani roll!) afterwards and BT's intensity at that point is perhaps the single greatest Roots moment.

Ryshpan said...

I'll admit that Malik's syncopated flow is a welcome change-up from BT's long, straight lines. I think it's more that the hype of Malik's return puts more expectation on it than he lives up to. On Things Fall Apart, when the two were on the same track, they complemented each other well and worked like a team; and the sort of schizophrenic pacings of Phrenology and Tipping Point might have made the duality on cuts like "Game Theory" and "Here I Come" a little more in kind. The fact that BT's upped the ante in terms of what he's talking about, and that Game Theory might be the most unified Roots album, just shows the seaming.

I don't think we'll see much more from Malik for awhile - ?uest claims Malik's still "co-dependent on his lifestyle of old," but he just loved the verses too much to cut them.

You're right about the beats, and especially that moment on "Take It There."

Mwanji Ezana said...

Thanks for that info on Malik. I stopped following Okayplayer many years ago (and only recently started reading his Myspace blog), so I'm a bit out of the loop (but also insulated from hype).

Maybe I've been listening a little too closely, but I think BT is a little more diverse flow-wise than he's given credit for (cf. "Baby" and, elsewhere, "Seed 2.0"). Anyway, I'll get into all that soon enough.