"Hip Hop is changing and you want me to stay the same?" Change, it's the inevitable. As much as we would like the world around us to stay constant the rules of nature will not allow it. This is also true with the nature of Hip-Hop and it's artists. With most of the Hip-Hop community loath and fear change, it is something we cannot control. Do we really fear change to the extent that any group, artist or emcee that follows its path is condemned to criticism and ridicule? Or is Hip-Hop the open-minded culture able to process the reasons and rational behind such change. A big step in order to see where we as a Hip Hop community stands in regards to change comes with one of the biggest changes for one of the biggest, most influential groups The Roots.
You knew it was inevitable but The Roots have moved on. Their distinct style and sounds of the past have matured and progressed past Hip-Hop into a category of creativeness indescribable by many Hip-Hop fans. Hip Hop's only live band is no longer your underground hero's, they are no longer the underdog, they are now the leaders of the pack, redefining their own style instead of letting the industry define theirs. Their fifth album entitled "Phrenology" is unlike any of their previous albums, hardly depicting the jazz offspring heard on "Organix" and "Do You Want More" or even the vast variety on "Illadelph Halflife" and "Things Fall Apart". Instead we get new offerings, different to say the least, still Hip-Hop with out a doubt, but somehow not able to fit along with the ghosts of the past.'
Take for example the sounds of "The Seed" featuring Cody Chestnutt, a heavily filled sex enthused blend of soulfulness and rock genre sounds that are unlike anything The Roots have portrayed thus far. Or take the sounds of "Sacrifice" featuring Nelly Furtado, a very deep thought out song full of rich soul, over abundant at times. Truly a great song, which is something The Roots have always been able to do, make good songs. However, it is still sounds like this that make "Phrenology" not bad but different from the rest. The hard-core sounds of "Rock You" and "Rolling With Heat" featuring Talib Kweli are more towards the norm as is the "You Got Me" type sound of "Break You Off".
However, within all this great music lies the feeling that something more could have been done. What made The Roots the trendsetters they are was their ability to break down barriers, define originality and present a sound so unlike its predecessors it was impossible to categorize them. We just don't get that type of results with "Phrenology" as the album breaks no new ground and is quite stale compared to its predecessors. At times the album's sounds become just plain average or bland to say the least as we get solid efforts from tracks like "Thought @ Work", "Pussy Galore", "Complexity" and "Water" but never anything defying expectations. Maybe we put to much pressure on The Roots or maybe after a classic run of albums there was just nothing left for The Roots but to change. While their previous albums featured a plethora of classic and revolutionary songs, "Phrenology" sees none of that, as there are no standout tracks featured on the album.
Besides the fact, there are also some key core issues that have to be resolved if such a turn around is necessary in the future for The Roots. One of the biggest factors is the role of Black Thought within The Roots band. While a very solid emcee, Thought has never been one of the elite lyricists in the game. Combine him within the whole group along with other emcees such as Malik B & Dice Raw, and you get an emcee able to shine brighter than all others do by not having to go overboard. However, with Malik B & Dice Raw not present on "Phrenology" the abundant amount of Black Thought does indeed overboard. It has taken a whole album full of nothing but Black Thought to realize what an emcee like Malik B brought to the group. He was the change up pitch, he was the X factor while Thought got all the fame and attention. Throughout "Phrenology" you just get the feeling that something is missing. And at times you just wish the constant churning through verses that Thought pulls off would slow down to a minimal pace. Of course Thought rips tracks like "Thought @ Work" and "Rock You" but he also brings just an average feel to tracks such as "Pussy Galore" and "Quills".
Nevertheless "Phrenology" is still a good album that wont mirror The Roots sounds of the past but will introduce a whole new fan base to the Philly crew. Sometimes change is for the better, and through time maybe we will come to embrace "Phrenology". As history has shown us, other legendary groups have witnessed the same fall. It wasn't that long ago when A Tribe Called Quest released "Beats, Rhymes & Life" and fans and critics alike were have the same talk we are having now only years later to understand its brilliance. Only time will tell if "Phrenology's" sounds of the future is just ahead our grasp.
It's a shame that for almost ten years The Roots have given us classic Hip Hop only to be criticized when it was their turn to move on. While the influences of rock, r&b and soul dominate "Phrenology" unlike the jazz sounds of the past, the album still manages to captures the pure essence of Hip Hop, creativity. One could pigeon hold The Roots forever into one distinct sound, never wanted them to abandon it. But what makes any artist or group withstand the test of time is their ability to change with the times while still being creative. The Roots have proved that they are one of these groups and they will be around for years to come. Maybe in some weird way The Roots have taken us and made us change along with them. Maybe along with their evolution as artists, we have to evolve as listeners. And maybe in the future we will look back on The Roots and say, "they forced me to look at the different side of Hip Hop" because no matter what The Roots are Hip-Hop in its purest form.