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Head Games


The Roots: Phrenology

MCA, 2002

Rating: 4.3



Posted: December 3, 2002

By Laurence Station

For years one of the Roots' most appealing aspects, aside from the downplaying of samples in favor of actual instrumentation, has been the complimentary rapping styles of front men Black Thought, whose top-drawer freestyling was a group hallmark, and Malik B, equally skilled at well-built, flavorful rhymes. So the departure of Malik B before the completion of the Philadelphia-based group's latest release, Phrenology, leaves the Roots without a key weapon in their arsenal -- and at a critical juncture, given the undeniable pressure to follow-up 1999's multi-platinum breakthrough Things Fall Apart.

Phrenology -- which takes its title from a 19th-century scientific movement (long-since debunked) that believed the shape and protuberances of one's skull were corollary to determining one's character and mental acuities -- is far and away the Roots' hardest-edged release to date. Clearly reflective of the turbulence within the band over the past three years, the album lacks the easy flow found on such superior Things Fall Apart tracks as "100% Dundee" and "Dynamite!" What it does possess, however, is dissonance. While it may not be dissonance of the '40s-style Birdland Be-bop variety, the noise assaults found on Phrenology still manage to accomplish the same ends as that radical shift in jazz did some sixty years ago: arrest the senses, force the listener to take notice and pay attention, rather than get lost in an overly consonant harmonic wash.

To that end, "Rock You" explodes with an insistently repetitive beat and Black Thought's equally redundant title chant. "!!!!!!!" is a terse, full-on punk screech no doubt influenced by the presence of new member and rock guitarist Ben Kenney. And the most volatile track, ten-minute, three movement "Water," finds Black Thought addressing the fallout with Malik B to the accompaniment of a cacophonous hailstorm of squawks, bleats, clanging percussion and angry rants. It's a cathartic watershed moment for the Roots, a purging of all the ill feelings that came with making the record and, despite the jarringly violent timbre, carries with it a sense of satisfied release. The Roots have never been so emotionally naked on record before -- and it's clear the rift with Malik hit the band hard -- making for an incredibly stirring moment.

"Water" proves such a defining artistic and personal statement that it threatens to overwhelm and diminish the tracks that precede and follow. Fortunately, it's bracketed by several stellar efforts: "Thought @ Work" superbly showcases Black Thought's near otherworldly flow against a cracking drum break; "The Seed (2.0)," featuring Cody ChestnuTT, is an engaging pop-rap hybrid, easily the album's catchiest cut; "Break You Off," with a guest turn from Musiq, sports solid drum and bass interplay; and "Complexity" nicely utilizes Jill Scott's comforting vocals to offset the hyper-aggressive tempo of prior tunes. Special mention goes to two imminently worthwhile bonus cuts: "Rhymes and Ammo," boasting an excellent call and response rap between Black Thought and guest MC Talib Kweli; and "Something to See," which serves up a blazing hot electronica beat that fairly demands dance floor play.

Of course, not everything works. "Sacrifice," featuring Nelly Furtado, is soulful but bland in comparison to the more muscular tracks surrounding it, while "Something In The Way Of Things (In Town)" suffers from poet Amiri Baraka's exceedingly long seven minute ramble about nothing in particular, though the casual backing beat proves intriguing.

Despite those minor missteps, Phrenology manages to just clear the high bar set by Things Fall Apart. Though the loss of Malik B affected the group deeply, the fact that the Roots were able to channel the pain and loss into something artistically worthy speaks volumes about the band's collective state of mind and strength of character, a prime example of what far too many people fail to do in the face of adversity: turn a negative into a positive.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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