In order to fully comprehend “Phrenology”; the fourth studio album by Philadelphia’s the Roots, it’s important to examine the topography of the band’s gray matter. Most hip-hop rhyme crews feature one guy scratching records and a couple of others moving about the stage. The Roots are a fully functioning music sextet. Vocalist Black Thought, Drummer ?uestlove, and bassist Hub provide rhythm that pry melodies ranging from ambient to fierce out of guitarist Ben Kenney, keyboard player Kamal and beatbox extraordinaire Scratch. The eclectic group explores regions of the creative consciousness that most street poets have not been able to do with their infusion of rhymes with jazz melodies and full instrumentation.
In many ways, The Roots are seen as the most popular artists of alternative hip hop. This hotly anticipated album has been delayed numerous times, so much so that if you take a look at the liner notes, you will notice that the conception dates of some of this music spans 2 years. Is it “Things Fall Apart” 2? No. Not anywhere close. But, it’s not as appalling as it sounds. The Roots have always made their bread on being an eclectic mix of jazz, hip hop, and soul, and how they can challenge conventional stereotypes of the genre of music they represent. This album is challenging, and about as avant-garde as the come, and in today’s jiggy music scene, that is no small feat.
“Phrenology” is the hardest hitting Roots album to date, and bewilders as often as it is dazzles. The hard hits start with “Rock You”, and the Talib Kweli duet “Rolling With Heat”. The 70’s Motown groove of “Sacrifice” featuring Nelly Furtado is a personal fav. Only the Roots can make Nelly Furtado not sound like Nelly Furtado. The true ambitiousness of this album comes to the forefront in extensions of songs such as “Water”, a song that morphs into psychedelic, drug induced, sound collage. The song is a look at former front man Malik B’s drug problems. You ain’t ever heard a hip hop track sound like this. Another example of the song extensions, and far out experimenting are the ending to the neo-soul duet with Musiq “Break you off”, the track entitled “!!!!!!!”, or even introduction of Techno House laden beats in some of the tracks.
If the Roots, or at the very least the sound they represent are the future of hip hop; then the sky is the limit. Don’t forget to check for the hidden bonus tracks, for one of the best album of the last year.