With The Roots, there always seems to be something extra (with)in their music. When compact discs were a bit more prized, one could find a hidden track or burst of sound. Or one could look at the covers and wonder what the group had in mind, figuratively (Things Fall Apart) and literally (Phrenology). Let’s take a quick look at the album cover for How I Got Over (Island Def Jam). Does it consist of people running? If it is, are they running away in the same fashion as N.W.A did in 100 Miles And Runnin’? Or are they running towards that big, bold white light, maybe paying an ode to Caron Wheeler‘s “Living In The Light”? Are these suggestions of how they, the legendary Philly hip-hop crew, “got over”?
Upon listening to this, the band’s 11th album, you realize that this is an all new experience, an “album experience” that in hip-hop has been somewhat lost. It’s all about the single MP3, the hit, the ringtone, the ringle, the song that will get them airplay outside of what used to be the normal means of hip-hop promotion. Yet The Roots, from day one, have not been normal, and the battle for normalcy and individualism in music has been their driving force, and while their growing legion of fans go out of their way to show support because it’s not just “the norm”.
The album begins with female background vocals singing a simple melody. Is it doo-wop, and is that a reference to ?uestlove‘s father, Lee Andrews? It then leads to some sounds that could’ve came from ?uest’s collection as a kid, very soulful and funky. Is this a way to describe his upbringing, the music he listened to as a kid curious of how sounds work? It leads to ?uest knocking out a beat, could this be the sound of discovering hip-hop? If so, one could easily compare this to the intro of Biggie Smalls‘ Ready To Die, where the intro talks of his origins before he explores his life and metaphorical suicide. A lot of people praise Ready To Die 16 years after the fact, and I feel that hip-hop fans and music scholars will look into and cherish this in the same way in 2026.
People will immediately notice the amount of collaborators who are on this, but having people such as Yin Yames, Joanna Newsome, and John Legend does not change the overall sound of the band in anyway. They’ve dabbled in pop and rock styles in recent years, so hearing Patty Crash bless a track like “The Day” with her sensual vocals fits the mood of the song, which is about that one day of optimism and freedom, as Fishbone once sang about in “One Day”. Black Thought raps about the differences in him since he and the group released Do You Want More?!!!??! 15 years ago:
Before I rise and shine like a neon sign
I need the girl of my dreams to give me Einstein
And burnin’ marijuan like Buju Banton
It’s my only bonafied break from these confines
I need a change of scenery like a mai tai
This chase bringing me the noise like the Bomb Squad
And everybody coming at me from the blind side
I’m tired, it’s hard to open up my eyes wide
I listen to some deep music on the iPod
And walk around the crib, doing little odd jobs
Checkin’ my breath, take a view fro this high rise
Feeling like I’m checking out a game from the sidelines
I got to try different things in these trying times
2010 is different than it was in 9-5
It’s Come Alive time, I pick the fine time
For getting open off life like a fine wine
Black Thought’s wit makes him to this day one of the more underrated MC’s in hip-hop, and what makes his rhymes work on here is the simply fact that it’s Black Thought. He has always been a visual rapper, you see what he’s talking about but you can also get a bit deeper and see how certain words within a sentence will rhyme with another word at the end, or how he’ll mix up doing 16 lines and sometimes doing it in a 3/1 3/1 3/1 4 fashion. This isn’t backdrop music, songs like “Right On” (which may or may not give a sample tribute nod to fellow Philly legend Steady B), “Walk On”, and “Radio Daze” require people to listen, for this is music meant to be heard and absorbed.
The album has been designed to listen to from start to finish, and like Game Theory and Rising Down, there isn’t a direct concept but rather a running theme. The theme on the album basically tells the story, directly and metaphorically, how they got over, even if close family and friends along the way continued to tell them to give up and stop. The music on this album is the result of musicians, rappers, and singers who had many opportunities to pack it in, but their love of hip-hop and creating music is what drives them to write, play, record, and perform. There was a time when lyric fiends would talk about “rewinding the tape” to catch the various lines and pop culture references, so if you hear things like “Kings that pull strings like Dorothy Ashby“, “last spotted on a yacht getting dumb high/banging’ yacht rock with the squad from 2-1-5”, and “shit, I’m Black Thought, what could be more prolific/for this love, I go above and beyond the limit/I told y’all I’m above and beyond a gimmick/I get into your head and spread like a pandemic”, it was meant to enter your mind and be stapled inside from this point on.
The group has also continued to perfect their appreciation for pop, rock, and soul, but anyone knows they have never been solely hip-hop. You hear the kind of arrangements that are generally deserved for people expected to make “this kind of music”, but who says The Roots band can’t play rock? A number of these songs have the potential to becoming pop and classic rock status, and wouldn’t that be funny? It had taken roughly five years of recording and releasing music (and a death) for Nirvana to become classic rock, and yet three decades after their origins as the Square Roots, to paraphrase Inspectah Deck, it’s about “23 long hard years” and they’re “still struggling”. The album is about that struggle, you hear a level of pain, sacrifice, and a bit of honor as they’ve remained strong to their mission, even if sometimes that mission has been blurred. There’s cockiness and confidence in what Black Thought, along with Dice Raw, Peedi Peedi, and Phonte Coleman, say on this album, united in musical brotherhood and hoping to “get over”. One of the more touching verses (and yes, hip-hop can be touching) comes from Phonte, as he looks at how he was raised, how sometimes his spiritual side ran out on him, and there’s even a level of self-doubt that isn’t a regular occurrence in hip-hop lyrics. If you’ve kept track of Phonte’s music since Little Brother and currently with Foreign Exchange, he has not been afraid to speak out or sing what is on his mind, even if some corporations felt it was “too smart” for others to listen to. There’s a bit of vulnerability in his tone and lyrics, but it’s about fighting the good fight, even though the next time that fight will happen is uncertain.
The first single, “Dear God 2.0”, has already given them a good amount of airplay with the help of My Morning Jacket‘s Jim James, who contractually is listed as Yim Yames on this album. It places itself early into the album, and some might argue that it’s a downer, but that’s the whole point. The melancholy in these songs give off a very somber mood, especially as they question everything that has happened to their lives so far, with Black Thought talking about how he has to deal with being on the “Def Jam payment plan”. It’s a confessional, getting out their deepest thoughts and putting it out into the world for all to hear. We’re all in this together, as Robert DeNiro said in Brazil, but the song seeks to find togetherness when everything continues to fall apart.
How I Got Over is what Sun Ra was adamant about in his earthly experience, the idea that one should create and try to live with “no limits”. The Roots are perhaps in another world, on the other level of the game, and yet each time they’ve reached certain levels in their career, they’ve been alone. These songs are an accumulation of what rap music was, is, and will always be, for those who honor the spirit of community. Their tale of how “they” got over is a message of optimism for the world, going back briefly to a time when optimism and good times in hip-hop didn’t have a price tag attached to it. If one is moved to say this is their Ready To Die, we can subtitle this Ready To Live, and this time the baby lives and gets a chance to sing. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself on an emotional roller-coaster throughout this album. Success indeed comes at a price, be it personal sacrifice or compromise, but they wouldn’t be where they are today if they didn’t see things through, it’s been one hell of a ride. In a genre that has been about going on and on forever and ever, The Roots look at their own mortality on this album to acknowledge the inevitability of finality.