Monday, August 28, 2006

Review: The Roots - Game Theory

The Roots - Game Theory (Def Jam)

It's a dark, dark world where The Roots reside right now, but that doesn't mean there's no light at all. Album number eight for the Illadelph crew sees their first outing for Def Jam, a worthy home for a band many consider to be true to the essence of hip hop (ie. The music comes first, the beats are tight, and the less bling the better). Many fans were skeptical of what would happen to the band, one of the first signings for the label's new president, CEO, and all-around head Hovito, Jay-Z. Would the band succumb to the pressure brought on by the greater exposure Def Jam would bring? Cave-in and dilute their essence with a slew of big-name cameos ('Come on down Snoop, Kanye, Pharrell, the water's fine!')? Retreat into their shells and bring out 79 minutes of drawn out jams that make Phrenology's 'Water' tame by comparison? One of these paths might just have been taken by a band who have never really broken into the big leagues; that is, if Hurricane Katrina hadn't torn through New Orleans last year, and changed the game completely.

Bristled by the lack of an immediate response shown by the Bush government, and the issues raised in Katrina's aftermath (such as the racial divide in New Orleans, assitance in Iraq vs assistance at home, and healthcare prior to, and especially after, Katrina's impact to name just a few), the gestation of Game Theory suddenly became more clouded. Indeed, no one would have expected a Def Jam debut to be this dark. Or that the mood created by Katrina, the US military's involvement in Iraq, and the general air of unease in the US over the last few years has prompted the band to make their most cohesive, if not best, album to date.

While there's no single track that will garner heavy rotation on MTV ('The Seed 2.0'), no killer 'group jam' (the J Dilla tribute 'Can't Stop This', while touching, is too long and drawn out to demand the listener reach for the repeat button), or no hold-the-phones cameos (nope, Hov thankfully didn't get a guest spot), what Game Theory has in spades is a strong flow that warrants listening from start to finish. Indeed, the aforementioned 'Can't Stop This' is really the only average moment here, and even then it still succeeds in ensuring Dilla's legacy won't easily be forgotten, the track built on one of the rough gems that came from the Detroit native's Donuts LP (released earlier in 2006 just days before his death).

The brooding one-two of 'False Media' and the title track show that this ain't no block party. Black Thought is often unfairly overlooked when it comes to discussions over rap's great MCs, but on Game Theory it's the tension surrounding affairs that really brings the best out of Tariq Trotter. On the booming, brooding 'All In The Music', featuring a welcome return spot from prodigal son Malik B, Thought paints a vivid picture of the darker side of the streets ('They say the city make a dark impression, the youth just lost, and they want direction, but they don't get the police, they get protection, and walk around with heat like Charlton Heston'). 'Long Time', backed by a backdrop of strings and Motown harmonies, sees Thought delve into personal memories of family struggles and survival, 'making something out of nothing, because everybody 50 cent away from a quarter though where I come from'. It's stirring stuff, easily the album's highpoint, and one of the band's best recorded moments.

Elsewhere 'Here I Come' sounds like the perfect backdrop music for a good ol' fashioned car chase, 'Clock With No Hands' is a slow jam made all the sweeter by the presence of Mercedes Martinez from the Jazzyfatnastees, while 'Atonement' (complete with a sample from Radiohead's 'You And Whose Army') ensures that the mood of Game Theory's final minutes is one of reflection.

So where does leave Philly's finest? Well, given the air surrounding much of Game Theory's subject matter, don't expect this to be the unit-shifter the band deserves. The promotional budget weilded by their new label will help expose them to a much wider audience, and initial press reviews have been more than favourable (although critics have usually been kind to The Roots). What Game Theory does indicate is that eight albums into their career, The Roots may have succeded in their fulfilling the inital request made to them by President Carter before signing on the dotted line - 'I want the real Roots album'. Well, Jigga, you got your wish.

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