A hilarious video for for What They Do, their savage take-down of hip-hop cliches, in which a lubricious bikini- clad dancer collapses poolside with “severe buttcramp”, marked The Roots as a band to be reckoned with.
Later, the title of the album that confirmed their frontline position on the rap starting grid,
No surprise then that the Philly outfit’s follow-up to Undun , the concept album that traces the life of a character in reverse, from death to birth, is another deftly constructed narrative song- cycle. “There are many layers to this record, ” promises Black Thought (aka Tarik Trotter). And he’s right.
From the surreal Cubist collage sleeve art by Roman Bearen to the final blast of avant-jazz piano trickery that closes out the 11-track album, The Roots deliver meat’n’drink where too many of their peers offer nothing but hot air.
Many first-generation rappers were poets with a conscience, driven by a powerful sense of community spirit that prompted them to focus on issues that blighted their communities. One of those, KRS-One (he guested on REM’s hit Radio Song), was so appalled by the shooting dead of his friend DJ Scott La Rock, a youth counsellor, that he started the Stop The Violence Movement.
On his hit Step Into A World, he dissed trigger-happy MCs, sarcastically noting that when fame eludes them “they wind up shootin ’ they cousin ”.
The Roots were paying attention. Here they create a conceptual tableau that unfolds like a street opera.
It’s film noir that’s as accessible and entertaining as anything by the Coen Brothers. At heart, The Roots are fans and musicologists, who know and love their stuff. And so, whether mashing up Betty Davis sultry-funk with discordant jazz piano (Black Rock) or ersatz organ-driven gospel with liquor-store stylin ’ ( Understand ), they of fer an intriguing matryoshka doll instead of a conventional blinged-up Barbie. Opening the al bum with Nina Simone ’s sombre Theme from The Middle of the Night is a bold move. Th is 1959 recording carries echoes of despair, like a cold wind blowing through Harlem. It sets the scene perfectly
Where many artists nick a sample and surf to celebrity status, The Roots construct a symphony. Listeners relaxing to the beats are jolted by a slab of French composer Michel Chion’s musique concrete on Dies Irae . Rappers Dice Raw and Greg Porn are familiar voices.
“I’d rather OD than be the next OG,” they chorus on The Dark (Trinity) . Album closer, Tomorrow , offers a smidgen of hope. An ace Questlove beat and a classic soul melody (“Everybody needs an angel... everybody has an angle. ”), with just a hint of Prince, lifts the mood. Th is is an impressive piece of work that’ s sure to endure.