REVIEW: Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”

Photobucket Let me tell you what My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Roc-A-Fella) is not. It is not another pop album from Kanye West, in that it doesn’t cater to generic pop music standards. With that said, pop music at its best has never been generic, but the artist who chooses not to take risks with what they are given, be it a song, the music, or their own talents. Hip-hop and pop music: we like to think that they should never be bed mates, but hip-hop has been one of the more popular forms of mainstream music for decades. That means longer than a few years, shorter than a century. It’s as if there’s still a fear that hip-hop will be bigger than life, when the music itself is meant to make you feel that way, or as if life didn’t matter and all is good and great in the world. A lot of artists who choose to call themselves hip-hop create music with fear, with hesitation, and that’s why there’s that non-existent community of naysayers called haters. Despite everything you know, understand, and/or believe about Kanye West as a persona, it’s not his music. At his best, West is someone who takes risks, is willing to try new or previously-at-rest techniques and present them in a fashion that makes him look and sound bigger than thou, and that’s cool. It benefits him as an artist, producer, and entertainer. Put the jazz hands in your pockets, that’s not what I mean. What exactly is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s his fifth album with a five-word album title. It’s a metaphor for his music, his outlook in his career, the ultimate glory in what any artist wants from his fans. He’s living his fantasy, he’s bathing in the glory, and most of all, we’re all in it for the ride.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an accumulation of everything West has experienced in his life following the release of an album that has fans as it has enemies, 808’s & Heartbreak. It was an album that had him singing and creating pop songs, by someone who really doesn’t have a singing voice. Was he trying to say that hip-hop broke his heart, as so many have tried to do but failed? After the grief he went through following the passing of his mother, and some of the peaks and valleys of his music and life in the media, he shut everyone out and create a unique tale that became his mock fantasy, told in album form. It’s an album made to be listened to as an album, which may seem old and outdated by the general populace, but for West it is always about the show. He is a showman, and without the show, he is nothing. Albums are meant to be experienced as a sonic show, a sound play, something that jazz artists and classical composers understood for years. As music became profitable as popular music, the emphasis was on one song, as it was believed one song could change your life. The album was not a big deal in the pop realm until the late 1960’s, when rock’n’roll would take cues from jazz and classical and explore the idea of making unique worlds in 40 minutes or less. Other genres would follow. Hip-hop has always been about the power of that one banging song, but hip-hop at its best was when hip-hop became a generation’s CNN and “the new rock’n’roll”. As hip-hop became more mainstream and found its audience growing, it lost touch with the idea of long-distance and exploring and chose to have a stay-cation in the clubs. Meanwhile,those who chose to explore found themselves with small packs of associates who were willing to go on the trip.

In the last year, West has talked about this album being a return to a time when hip-hop meant the world to all of us. Some bloggers said it was the return of the boom bap in 2010, the idea that almost every new single, album, and artist coming out was celebrated for good and bad, not for how many jail terms they had or who was the mother of their child. The first cue of what this album could be like was the release of “Power”, a song co-produced with Symbolyc One. S1, as he is known, has a great style of production that dips back to the glory days of sample-based production, and I became a deeper fan when he produced a track for Portland rapper Braille called “It’s Nineteen”. I’ve been a fan of Braille for awhile, and while I am not religious by any means, I always got into the positivity he shared in his music. So here’s a track where he’s talking about understanding the limits of life, but why not go one higher? S1 pulled a much-used beat and placed it in the track, and along with vocalist Ragen Fykes, they both said “in my meditation I saw a manifestation of elevation.” I was sold: Braille’s positive lyrics mixed in with an incredibly funky track from S1, mixed in with beautiful vocal accents from Fykes, and I wanted to hear more. He did other tracks, but then it became known that he was collaborating with Kanye West. WHAT? How did that happen? Then the song leaked, and that King Crimson sample did it for me. As someone who has sampled King Crimson in my own works but failed to be heard, it was great to hear someone pull this off, use a progressive rock classic and make it work within the context of what West was doing, what West has become for some people. Was he describing himself as the schizoid man, or are we as crazy as he wants us to be, and he’s laughing at us? The lyrics have West getting into a very dark place, and then wishes for a beautiful death. Was this him talking about a suicide, or is he thinking in metaphors of pleasure? The term “instant death” is an old school phrase for “orgasm”, something Eddie Harris and Beastie Boys knew all too well when they used it. If it’s meant to say that life could begin and end in an instant like the feeling of orgasm, then West was going to see his death, his career, as something that comes and goes like a shooting star. Was he describing himself as the shooting star, or was he shooting something else across the universe? One version of the song surfaced, and then other versions would have added lines, so it seemed even as fans became aware he was about to release new music, he was changing and evolving his song in real time. Then the title of the album became known, which was also changed slightly in the last minute. The album cover was revealed, said to have been banned but may have been nothing more than attention grabber to get people to talk. I felt the cover may have been one of a number of images meant to represent the music. Very few in hip-hop have ever explored the idea of alternate/multiple covers, the exception being The Roots for their 1999 album Things Fall Apart. It is something that has been done in rock’n’roll by everyone from Led Zeppelin to The Police, and now it seems with a King Crimson sample and Cold Grits break as the key, and an album title as the red carpet, it was now time to walk into the castle and kingdom that is Kanye, Willy Wonka style.

  • Lyrically, West is at the top of his game, but he has always had the gift of gab with a swagger that he enjoys playing out publicly, but always works best (IMHO) in his music. Despite how bold he gets with completely smart ass lyrics and fearless messages and slogans, there’s a vulnerability that is nice to hear in a genre that often thinks too much about the size of its own dick. “Dark Fantasy” exploits this to its fullest potential, hints of the old and the new West both musically and vocally. In the opening track, he says even when things were down and out for him, he just zoned out to some video games and planned out the next mission:

    me drown sorrows in that Diablo
    me found bravery in my bravado
    DJ’s need to listen to the models
    You ain’t got no fuckin’ Yeezy in your Serato?

    It sounds like he’s building, but simplifies in a way that is so humble, it might be overlooked when he says all he is is “just a Chitown nigga with a nice flow” (not “a Nas flow” as other websites have translated it as.). For a brief moment, he pops his own bubble and plants his feet back to Earth, and that’s when that vulnerability comes in. Critics and fans were too quick to say that his last album was nothing but weak-hearted “emo rap”, as if showing your emotion was a sign of being a fake, fraud, or a weak, not worthy of creating rap music. Yet saying he is nothing more than a man from Chicago who loves to rap, I dare you to find someone with his popularity drop his guard and say “yes, this is me.” Now that you know who he is (a re-affirmation of the popular hip-hop idiom “you know what I’m sayin’?”, he’s hoping you have your seatbelt on, because it’s a ride unlike any other you have experienced in a hip-hop setting.

  • One can argue that West is at his best when he’s talking about himself., that used to be what shaped a rapper and what made fans honor him with calling him an MC. West has no problem in turning the spotlight and mirror on himself, as if he was Morris Day and Jerome Benton in the same person. Has West always been masturbatory? At times it’s very much like mixophilia, and if West is his own mixologist, then he is the seller and supplier of his own dope. With a song like “Gorgeous”, non-fans will go “oh no, this guy is saying he’s gorgeous now, like a boxer?” and maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. In the song, he says everyone deserves to live well and feel good, but he has seen enough people who have not had that good. Then he busts out a lyrical star and throws it hard with the line “I treat the cash the way government treats AIDS/I won’t be satisfied till all my niggas get it… get it?” Ouch, and yes, it’s meant to hurt. Like an earworm, that one will be hard to remove.
  • “Power” could be a flashback to what KRS-One said when in “My Philosophy”, he rapped “teachers teach and do the world good/kings just rule and most are never understood”. In this case, who is the king? West played with the guy with the artwork for the single, West’s head separated from his body, sword in his head, left there to bleed. If the sky is said to be the limit, the sky will always be there but “the powers that be” seem to prefer to see a black man with his head off than for him to see his dreams come true, or to even hope for dreams. The KRS-One references continue when, in the 4th line, West says “I guess every superhero need his theme music”. Now he’s the Jack of Spades, not the king, because “no one man should have all that power”, not even West himself, even though he trips off of what people thinks he has. One of the more effective moments in the song is when he says
    “I got the power, making life so excited”, and when the words “so excited” is echoed, it sounds like the word “suicide” repeating itself, leading to him saying “Now it’sll be a beautiful death”, complimented with Dwele singing “I’m jumpin’ out the window, I’m letting everything go”. West then says, in closing, “you got the power to let the power go?” Interpret that as you will.

  • The guests on “Monster” are impressive: Rick Ro$$, Jay-Z, and Bon Iver, and together they help describe a beast that is the unseen force tearing the world apart. The word “monster” is said to be a way to place a name for a beast that is actually man, but it is impossible for we as humans to see someone being so evil. That goes back to West asking about if one man can have so much power, because often times the most powerful people in the world are the ugliest beasts out there. However, it is the verse from Nicki Minaj that steals this song and makes it her own, with different accents and speed manipulations:

    Pull up in a monster automobile gangsta
    with a bad bitch that came from Sri Lanka
    Yeah I’m in a Tonka, color of Willy Wonka
    You can be the king, but watch the queen conquer
    Okay, first things first, I’ll eat your brains
    Then I’mma start rockin’ gold teeth and fangs
    Cause that’s what a motherfuckin monster do
    Hair dressed up from Milan as the monster ‘do
    Monster Guiseppe heel as the monster shoe
    Young Money is the roster and the monster crew
    And I’m all up in the bank with a funny face
    And if I am fake, I ain’t notice ’cause my money ain’t

    Then she validates the kill she just committed by placing the lyrical knife deeper into the body. If you have yet to become a believer of the words and wisdom of Nicki Minaj, her verse here will change your mind.

  • The entire album is like that, playing with listener emotions and perceptions, going back to a time when fans loved to rewind their tapes because a verse or line was so damn good, you had to go back and do it again. It is as impressive as anything he’s ever done times ten, because while he is very much confident of his success and how he got to this point in his life, he likes to play with the idea of what the public thinks of him. It’s “having your cake and eat it too” set to music, but he also explores himself from an outside perspective, opening the wounds and revealing his flaws. He’s human, and yet if there’s a steady stream of consciousness on the album, it’s exploring the exploitation of superstars and those with power, the evil that heroes do, and why some get praised for all the wrong reasons. Throughout the album you’ll also hear casual references to other musical heroes who are no longer with us, including Marvin Gaye, Rick James (the added sample used in his Saturday Night Live performance of “Runaway” are now in the final album mix), and Michael Jackson (a few that are obvious, one not so much). In some way, West is saying “if no one is going to take the role of today’s musical hero, I’ll be willing to take that role”, which is very hip-hop of him, thank you. He says that on an album that features the man who helped start his career, Jay-Z, and yet even though it’s being said as a means of wordplay, you have to give him credit for being true to himself, more than anything.
  • What I also found interesting about his album is how he executed his ideas, with songs that go over the four and five minute lengths. If the use of progressive rock and obscure samples is a throw back to people like Pete Rock, DJ Premier, and Prince Paul, then the expansion of these songs also have to be considered a factor. Prog rock samples are nothing new in hip-hop, go back to 3rd Bass, Gold Money, Organized Konfusion, Powerrule, Mobb Deep… hell, go to “Oochie Wally”. While prog rock samples have always been hot for untapped beats and baselines, only a select few have taken the prog rock aesthetic into their hip-hop. DJ Shadow is an example of someone who has done it very well with his anthemic 4-part track “What Does Your Soul Look Like”, but that was 16 years ago and probably overlooked by those who don’t view Shadow as hip-hop (and if not, study your lessons and come back to me next week). West adds elements to these songs that might feel drawn-out and overdone to some, but the same fans who may feel this are probably the ones who will follow his very move and promotional tactic. West, at least for this album, wants people to hear what can be done if you go beyond hip-hop’s self-made and conservative boundaries and create music that may one day be compared to the works of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis.
  • That doesn’t mean My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the perfect album, but it comes damn close. There are moments throughout where the expectations are better than the reality, and perhaps should have been edited out of a song or the album would’ve been better without the track. Throughout the year, various mixes and versions of songs have circulated online, a few of which (for me at least) work better than the mixes that are on here. Some songs that aren’t on the album may have worked better in place of a few. Fortunately, if you are a completist, you can hunt down different variations of the album and listen the way you feel fit. Perhaps in a few years (or maybe next May), West may feel a need to release a box set featuring all of the songs recorded for this album, all demos, all multi-tracks, all isolated vocals, everything so that fans can create their own Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (okay, maybe that’s “my” fantasy). For now, West shows that his fantasies aren’t much different from anyone else’s, dark or otherwise (interpret that as you wish). But these are his fantasies, some of which have come true. Sometimes the fantasy is better than the reality, but West doesn’t mind catering to the fetishes he wants to explore in order to find out.

  • REVIEW: John Legend & The Roots’ “Wake Up!”

    Image and video hosting by TinyPic There was a time when albums, and music in general, were not mere wallpaper in our daily existence. There’s that phrase about how music is the soundtrack to our lives, but I can go one deeper. In many ways, growing up with music, seeking and finding something that made us become more aware of the world, made us look forward to wanting to grow up to become adults so we could experience grown-up things in real time. Music was a relative, if not a parent, and listening was a bit like the kind of mothering we wanted and demanded, even if we had no idea what was happening as we listened, sang, and danced. Wake Up! (Columbia) is that album that perhaps a lot of us have been waiting for for years. It is a direct message from one generation to another, singing songs about one generation to another, in the hopes of finding some sense of common ground for one another. Yes, it’s that type of album.

    Let me get this out of the way. I have never been a big John Legend fan. I don’t hate the man, his voice, or his songs. What I did not like was hearing this guy who has a really good voice, getting songs that seemed sub-standard for him, as if they were forced. Here’s a guy who said “you know what, I’m going to call myself Legend because I feel I can be a legend” but his music was far from being legendary. He has many hits to his name and has won a few awards, but I wanted to tell him “damn, do you want more?!!!??!”

    This question, of course, leads me directly to The Roots. I’ve been a fan of the Philadelphia hip-hop band for 15 years, became a fan as soon as I heard the crackle and needle link in the intro to “Distortion To Static”. Loved the funkiness, the bulk of the drums, the craving of words and word play, the low-end groove, I liked it a lot. Then I discovered they were adventurists, revolutionaries in a field of music that, for awhile, once spoke of and promoted mental and social revolution. Individually and collectively they’ve flirted with success, and yet spoke of the downfalls of that success on their albums. “What if” they were able to reach the level of no return, then what? Perhaps for them, it’s about flipping that recipe. Home is home, and they want to get to the point, or “a point” and for now they do not want to return home just yet. It’s about the destination and travel to “the point”, while taking in the scenery. That has been the legacy thus far for The Roots.

    The idea of John Legend and The Roots united for a full project doesn’t seem odd, since both have collaborated a number of times over the years. But a full album? To me, this would mean Legend would get the funk he so sorely needed, while The Roots get to explore once more, in a year where the group has been very busy in their mission (with more to come). I put on the album and immediately I hear some tape hiss. It’s a few milliseconds, but I feel it, it’s analog, and I’m smiling from ear to ear. The band is starting up, and it feels like a classic soul and funk album, it’s not too crispy and clean. It has that 70’s grit, and to say that these guys have been doing their homework is foolish, they know how to capture and recreate a sound, which becomes their own sound. I hear Legend, and without him singing a proper word, just a bit of harmonizing, I’m thinking “oh man, oh man”. Then within 15 seconds, the beat kicks in. I’m in the middle of my yard mowing the lawn with headphones connected, and I’m going “holy fucking shit”. The song they’re playing is Baby Huey‘s “Hard Times”, and I’m not only getting memories of Biz Markie right there, but I’m wanting to do the damn Mudfoot for all my neighbors to see. I’m listening, and the band sounds great, supertight, always on the money. Then Legend starts singing the song, and I finally hear the man I’ve wanted to hear for years.

    Together, they create an album that is meant to bring together not only their collective audiences, but for everyone to finally communicate and talk about this silly thing called music. For Legend & The Roots, it’s a way for them to share their collective influences, not only from what they listened to growing up, but also to touch on their local and regional heroes. It is a solid soul album, and when you have Black Thought, Common and CL Smooth dropping verses, they are simply adding their brand of lyricism to the mix, complimenting these songs without dominating. With vocalist Melanie Fiona on here, helping Legend out in their cover of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes‘ “Wake Up Everybody”, you realize one of the reasons this album was made in the first place. They’re trying to tell everyone to wake up, time to teach and reach. As kids, these were songs that taught us to be better and have a positive outlook, but now we’re dealing with hatred, war, and poverty. But now, we have become the teachers:

    Wake up all the teachers, time to teach a new way
    Maybe then they’ll listen to whatcha have to say
    Cause they’re the ones who’s coming up and the world is in their hands
    when you teach the children teach em the very best you can

    Not only do these songs touch on the social ills of the world, but perhaps it’s also subliminally looking at the current ills of music. No one is teaching or preaching, everyone is reaching, and no one is willing to do something without ego involved. It’s inspiring to hear these songs and the spontaneity involved, especially when artists today rely too much on the convenience of convenience. There are jam sessions on here where you really get a chance to hear Legend go into himself and let it rip, something most people have not heard unless you’re in a live setting, but even that is fairly reserved. One is able to hear shades of Donny Hathaway, Teddy Pendergrass, and Eddie LeVert in his voice and approach to these songs, as if he’s saying “these words will live up with the help of me and The Roots, now let’s deliver the word.” They take Bill Withers‘ Vietnam-war era gem “I Can’t Write Left Handed” and turn it into a close-to-12 minute modern day masterpiece. In fact, outside of the vintage qualities of these songs, I think they were selected to show that while many years have passed since then, its message and power are still valid. They may or may not be songs of protest, they may or may not be songs of anger, hopes, and dreams, but they are songs that allow people to think for themselves.

    One of the album’s biggest highlights is when they cover Eugene McDaniels‘ “Compared To What”. The song has been covered many times by soul, funk, and jazz artists in the last 40 years, most notably by Eddie Harris & Les McCann, but this arrangement is completely different yet perfect for the current time. For years, people have spoken in music and interviews about wanting to keep it real, in fact it became one of hip-hop’s most used cliches. In 2010, no one knows what is real and what isn’t, we believe in more myths and falsehoods than ever, so Legend kindly asks “try to make it real compared to what?” In other words, if you’re not dealing with reality, what the hell ARE you dealing with?

    It’s an album full of reflection, both real and metaphorical, and it speaks of not only their talents as singers and musicians, but also of the power of the original singers, songwriters, and musicians who created these songs. In a small way, John Legend & The Roots have become the new heroes of the modern day apocalypse, and while they may not willingly take that role, no one else is putting their names in the hat. Hearing Legend tear his soul out speaks of the power of his voice, a power I have been longing to hear. It’s very un-pop of him, and he could easily press cruise control in his career and become Sheryl Crow. It’s an unexpected ballsy move, either that or he has had this in his back pocket the entire time. Upon listening to the musicianship of The Roots, from the fierce complexities of Owen Biddle‘s to Kirk Douglas‘s crunch riffs, the arrangements and backdrops of James Poyser to the “okay, let’s see how many different loops you can catch me playing, see if anyone can tell that this is like me selecting what songs I’m going to do in my next DJ set but then let’s also see if you can tell what part of my drumming did I create a custom mash-up” of ?uestlove, I couldn’t help but think this. The Roots are not this generation’s Parliament or Funkadelic, they are not this generation’s Isley Brothers, they are not this generation’s Earth, Wind & Fire, Cameo, L.T.D., Tower Of Power, or Fishbone. The Roots are The Roots of this and future generation’s, and it’s amazing to hear what quality music can still sound like when you put your heart, mind, and soul into it. Perhaps with people like Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings offering an unabashed taste of the grit in soul music, John Legend & The Roots said “cool, I love them both but fuck it, this is our time to shine.” Wake Up! is an album which says no matter how far you travel, even if you never make it to “that point of no return”, there is still a place called home to go to. Perhaps this serves as an intentional call to other artists to wake up as well.

    REVIEW: The Roots’ “How I Got Over”

    Image and video hosting by TinyPic 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 SmallsReady 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.

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