At a time in Hip Hop where every mainstream artist wants a concept album, The Roots have been engineering thematic offerings since Things Fall Apart. It seems that the busier the Philadelphia band becomes, the more creative they get. How I Got Over represents The Roots’ first album recorded almost entirely during their nightly role as house band to Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. However, the group’s third Def Jam release is as dynamic, deep and diverse as they’ve gone to date. Seemingly finding a 25th hour to record, How I Got Over proves that no matter how much time the septet spends on stages, they still feel what’s happening in the lives of their audience.
Rather than looking to Hip Hop for inspiration as they did throughout many of their acclaimed early releases, The Roots use How I Got Over to look to the sky. A key theme within the album is unanswered prayer and solitude. “Walk Alone” echoes both, not with an emo-Pop “woe is me” aesthetic, nor or a Ghostface “catch me in the corner not speakin’” mantra. Instead, the song projects a do-for-self truth that resonates loudly at a time of social isolation in a technologically over-connected world. Musically, “Walk Alone” is as diverse as its message. Each emcee (Black Thought, Truck North, P.O.R.N.) carves their verses with a different level of intensity and relationship to the theme, while Dice Raw’s whimsical chorus almost assures that being alone is okay, if you’re prepared for it. “Dear God 2.0” is much more in-your-face. Black Thought carries the weight and shows his own range, rhyming from a blue-collar perspective of the daily stresses of living life in 2010. Much more subdued, the song shares the angst, uncertainty and release with Rap’s pillar classic, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five‘s “The Message.” The title song might tie into the bigger themes, but also show the band’s evolution. Black Thought’s cracked crooning reveals that one of Hip Hop’s true masters of ceremony is not unlike Pharoahe Monch or Cee-Lo in his ability to carry a tune with as much emotion as his rhymes. The song’s chorus, sarcastically stating that “someone has to care,” speaks to society’s lack of compassion. As Black Thought talks about the streets’ live-and-let-die mentality, Dice Raw’s beautiful chorus reminds us that we as teachers are to blame for “not giving a fuck.” The record is at the zeitgeist of youth everywhere, and presented with jazzy high-hats and tangible to both Curtis Mayfield and The Chambers Brothers’ deep influence on Rap.
Within their nearly 20-year-catalog, The Roots’ albums have always been an ensemble cast. While longtime emcee affiliate Malik B is notably absent on How I Got Over, multi-song guests such as Phonte and Blu fit in like Illafifth family. Tigallo and Tariq’s tandem verses on “Now Or Never” and “The Day” make the songs seem like they’re chronological, and sequenced to tell a bigger story of progression. Like the last handful of Roots releases, these nuances allow the listener to take guesses at deeper meanings and sources of album and song inspiration. Just as has been the case since Game Theory, Dice Raw proves to be an integral role to The Roots’ growth. On How I Got Over, not as an emcee, but as a singer and songwriter, Dice’s choruses pull this album out of genre, while maintaining vernacular still rooted in Rap. With an extended family atmosphere, this album maintains The Roots’ ability to sound organic, experimental and deeply deliberate at once. The musical highpoint in the album comes courtesy of “Right On,” driven by vocals from hipster-heralded harpist Joanna Newsom. The record has crossover appeal, and beautiful vocal engineering, as ?uestlove proves once again, to be one of the smartest and most far-reaching producers in music.
How I Got Over feels both inspired by the iPod as well as an ode to the turntable. On one hand, The Roots’ influences veer further away from the same emcees they were once sonning on Illadelph Halflife, making them a product of the homogenization of genre. On the other hand, the sum of the contents of this album is exponentially more significant than its parts. Meaning, The Roots made an album that cannot be shuffled, packaged into buzz-singles or understood unless digested over 42 and a half minutes without touching the needle. But Hip Hop’s most beloved band isn’t even talking about music this time. Speaking to all their audiences over the last 23 years, The Roots are as emotionally-tangible as they’ve ever been, and whether it’s debt, depression or Divine intervention, they’re walking over the bridge with us all.