The Roots are one of the most consistent hip-hop groups to date. These Philadelphia artists consistently release high quality music. Even if you do not like the track, you have to acknowledge that they always have solid beats, intelligent lyrics, good flows, and good production. They always strive to be innovative and original while maintaining a love for hip-hop and jazz. "Things Fall Apart" was a classic album that gave birth to amazing tracks like "Act Too (Love Of My Life)" with Common, "You Got Me" with Erykah Badu, "Double Trouble" with Mos Def, "Adrenaline" with Beanie Sigel and Dice Raw and many others. Now, The Roots became more popular with "You Got Me" and their work with Jay-Z on his "Unplugged" album. After a good couple of years, The Roots return with "Phrenology". For those who do not know, Phrenology is the study of the shape and protuberances of the skull, based on the now discredited belief that they reveal character and mental capacity. Once again, The Roots created a high quality album (with some flaws) for the mind, body and soul. Out of all of their LPs, they took the most chances on this one.
The best songs are very unique to the hip-hop world. "Water" is in 3 parts. This is a track about the heartache of watching a friend or loved one waste away on drugs. Produced by Tahir (who worked with Dead Prez), the handclaps are strong and the rhythms bounce and glide at the same time. Black Thought gets emotional and insightful:"...You need to walk straight, master your high / Son you missin' out on was passing you by /I done seen the streets suck a lot of cats dry /But not you and I my nigga /We got to get / Come on, over- over the water..." Black Thought's third verse is especially well done. The only problem is the next 2 parts. While it is creative, it crosses the line from ambient symbolism to just annoying noise. While the sound effects of the water, the bong and the heartbeat are useful and effective, they could have proven he same point in half the time. The "Abyss" is used as a metaphor for the person's self-destruction as he drowns himself with drugs. "The Seed (2.0)" (featuring Cody Chesnutt) is an incredible and original rock track that has a strong old school Motown soul music feel to it. Black Thought has one of the coolest flows I've heard in a while. The sung hook by Chesnutt is cool too because it has not only an aggressive energy but also a deep soul. "Rolling With Heat" features Talib Kweli and Dice Raw. This is a very funky track where Dice Raw actually sings the hook. This stripped-down duet has Black Thought and Talib Kweli rocking the mic well. Talib Kweli stops by on the hidden track too that some people call "Rhymes & Ammo (remix)". Using a call-response hook, both emcees rock the mic well one more time. "Thought @ Work" pays tribute to the legendary emcee Kool G. Rap. The jacked beat is used well and Thought rides the mic with respect. The sung hook takes some time to grow on the listener but it all works well. "Break You Off" featuring Musiq (produced by Kamal Gray) is an obvious attempt at making another "You Got Me". ?uestlove even goes off on the drums towards the end. Still, the track works. It is extremely catchy due to the beat and hook. Black Thought's delivery and flow are magnificent. He soars over the rhythm with lyrics of forbidden romance: "...Bad Misses, Throwing raspberry kisses on me / You looking for directions? /Girl I feel your vision on me..." The orchestra arrangements are also well done. The track truly grows and is much longer than a typical rap song. It clocks in at around 7 minutes but it all works well. The final track where they take some chances is the second hidden and unnamed song. They actually do a hardcore techno/rave track where Black Thought's vocals are contorted with special effects. It's very well done and Rahzel's contributions are like the icing on the cake.
"Phrenology" has some so-called filler tracks that are all executed very well. The only reason they can be classified as filler is because they do not hit as hard as the ones mentioned above. "Sacrifice" features Nelly Furtado and is a beautiful mellow track with some lovely melodies. Black Thought and Furtado sing the hook, which philosophizes about how happiness is achieved thru sadness and sacrifices must be made in order for true happiness to be achieved. The last part of the album has 3 songs in a row that are well constructed but do have a somewhat watered-down filler quality. "Quills" (produced by Kareem Riggins, who did some work with Slum Village) is typical filler track. Still, The Roots display their musical talent with good solid rhythm. "Pussy Galore" features Tracey Moore of The Jazzyfatnastees and was produced by Scott Storch. This track was originally going to be on Black Thought's solo album. Now, it has been re-worked and made much more mellow. It is a song about the power of the female species. Using a play on words, Black Thought constructs a smooth flow and delivery over a cool beat but the constant repetition of the title in the hook goes back and forth on the borderline of sexy versus crass. That is very odd for The Roots. "Complexity" featuring Jill Scott is an extremely soft and silky track that displays the talent of everyone involved. Still, it does not have that strong punch as some of the other cuts. The LP's opening track "Rock You" (produced by DJ Scratch) pounds away with a hard, thumping beat. Unfortunately, it does not have the same opening punch as "Table Of Contents" from "Things Fall Apart" LP. The energy level is high and Black Thought gives his usual solid performance. It does feel somewhat generic for a Roots opener. All of these so-called 'filler' tracks are well executed and very tight. Everything is solid from the beat to the lyrics to the flow to the hook. They must grow on the listener and be appreciated since they do not have the hard punch like other tracks.
No Roots album would be complete with some interludes and the final spoken-word track. Here, the interludes are odd but cool. One excellent interlude is "Wack(ay) Rollcall" where Ursula Rucker drops names of all the important people who contributed to hip-hop culture. "!!!!!!!" is a short and obnoxious tribute to Bad Brains in an adrenaline-fueled hardcore punk track. Luckily it is under a minute long and there is an extremely smooth transition to the track "Sacrifice". The spoken word track does NOT have Ursula Rucker on it! "Something In The Way Of Things (In Town)" is vocally led by the poetry of Amiri Baraka. It is a refreshing change that does work.
"Phrenology" is a solid album. The Roots are growing up and have been for quite some time. "Things Fall Apart" displayed this maturity but had a consistent sound. "Phrenology" still has a consistent sound but it is the most diverse Roots album ever made. You have to respect them for taking chances. There's a flipside to that coin. While they do take chances on some songs, other songs have a watered-down formula that gives the tracks a radio-friendly feel. The similarities of "Break You Off" to "You Got Me" are so blatant. Still, there is not one wack or bad song on the album. Some songs just hit much harder than others. Also, "Phrenology" is missing some things that have always been consistent on past LPS. First, the beat boxing of Scratch and Rahzel is not as evident or used as much. Second, Malik B is nowhere to be found. Third, Dice Raw only sings a drowned-out hook and does not rock a ferocious verse. Forth, besides Talib Kweli, all of the guests are singers or musicians. With so many Okayplayers, I would love to hear Common, Tre Hardson, Mos Def, Q-Tip, Rakaa of Dilated Peoples or even Bahamadia on the mic rocking a verse. Overall, "Phrenology" will satisfy fans of The Roots. It may bring them so new fans too. They are becoming more commercially accessible but they will always be respected. It is so evident that they love making music. While "Phrenology" may not be a classic like "Things Fall Apart" or "Illadelph Halflife", it has many strong cuts. It does not have any of those classics like "Clones", "Adrenaline", "The Hypnotic", "What They Do" or "Act Too (Love Of My Life)". The Roots must be respected. "Phrenology" is not just for the mind. It's for the body and the spirit inside every listener who appreciates good music. Face it, The Roots make good music. Let their music get inside your head.