The Roots The RootsHow I Got Over
Essentially dramatic, confessional, and melancholy, “How I Got Over” is on its way to becoming the great hip hop album of the recession era. No other artist or band in this genre has so precisely and humanly manifested the uncertainty, doubts, disconsolate pessimism, and restrained optimism generated by a period when every misfortune and every setback places another load on the back of faith. Faith in God, in man, or in art- these are the three thematic lines served up in the lyrical proposal of an album that hurts down to your soul. It’s been too long since a hip hop album emanated so much emotion and common sense, and on both sides, as well: its rhythms and rhymes, lyrics and music, show an uncommon intelligence and elegance. In case it isn’t already clear, we are looking at one of the most important titles of the season.
The return of the band from Philadelphia revolves around two great ambitions. The first is to integrate the strong influence and recognised attachment of ?uestlove to contemporary indie-rock, within a context of maximum continuity and fidelity to the expressive patterns of their discourse. I get the impression that the idea also involves the intention of giving the songs greater melodic strength and emotional resources, in accordance with the exaggeratedly lucid, intelligent use of the voices of Joanna Newsom, Jim James, Patty Crash or Dirty Projectors. The group’s creative know-how and talent are demonstrated by the way that they put together all of these collaborations without crossing over into what doesn’t concern them, without giving themselves over entirely to a mistaken idea of fusion or meetings at the crossroads. It isn’t an indie-rock and rap album, it’s a The Roots album with well-done vocal collaborations, which make all the sense in the world within the context of the album. For example, “Dear God 2.0”, with Jim James, the singer from My Morning Jacket, and the support of the rest of the Monsters Of Folk, has more the appearance of a soul-noir cry, very much in the line of the rest of the music, than a folk-rock song that has been shoehorned in. The songs are pieces of a coherent, logical puzzle.
And in fact, not to lose its bearings, the collection of hip hop and soul guest appearances is powerful and one hundred percent in tune with the aesthetic and message of the songs: Blu, Phonte, John Legend, Dice Raw, Truck North and the promising STS. Musically, “How I Got Over” is a more stylised, gentle, and melodic version of its predecessor, “Rising Down”, but infinitely fresher, more dynamic and memorable. ?uestlove’s piano and muscular drum rule, in the form of loops and beats, and the keyboards, guitar, and bass are added to them, to form a perfectly-oiled sombre rap machine with strong soul connections. The background almost seems gospel, because of the drama and emotional spirituality given off by the songs, but the most precise definition would be that of rap-soul noir, the ideal soundtrack for the more convulsive moments of any Spike Lee film, for example. The Roots sound sad, hurt, as if they were sure that the way things are these days they can’t afford to change their tone, smile, or be frivolous. It is as if the generalised depression that covers everything had contaminated their music, or as if the group had decided that if their music is a faithful, natural, and realistic reflection of the society in which they live, then it also has to move along the same line when the mood is low and negative emotions are running high.
This is the album’s second great ambition: the lyrics and the concept. Black Thought has always seemed to me to be an undervalued MC, who went unnoticed within the group’s singularity and expressive exoticism. And if his yield is usually high, here the truth is that he has put out his best rhymes in many years. As if the context gave him greater confidence, as if he were more motivated by the portrait of desolation, the rapper gives us a real exhibition of reasonable, intimate, close, doubting, melancholy, and mistrusting lyrics. “How I Got Over” is above all else, an album about doubt and existentialist uncertainty. In “Dear God 2.0” he reviews the cataclysm the world is headed for, to consider a crisis of faith. “ Dear God, I'm trying hard to reach you / Dear God, I see your face in all I do / Sometimes it's so hard to believe it / But God, I know you have your reasons.” And then, Black Thought questions things: “If I don't make it through the night, slight change of plans / Harp strings, angel wings and praying hands / Lord, forgive me for my shortcomings / For going on tour and ignoring the court summons / All I'm tryna do is live life to the fullest / They sent my daddy to you in a barrage of bullets / Why is the world ugly when you made it in your image? / And why is living life such a fight to the finish? / For this high percentage, when the sky's the limit / A second is a minute, every hour's infinite.”
In the title song, confusion and discouragement reign, in the face of the hopelessness of an uncertain, dehumanised future where nothing and no one matters. “ Out on the streets, where I grew up / First thing they teach us, not to give a fuck / That type of thinking can’t get you nowhere / Someone has to care,” sings Dice Raw in the chorus, before Thought shows his concern for the future of a defenceless community: “ Somebody's gotta care… / And I swear it isn't fair / In suspended animation, we ain't tryin to go nowhere / Out here in these streets… / We're so young and all alone / We ain't even old enough, to realize we're on our own / Livin’ life in these hard streets / Where it's like they lost they mind / Is there anyway to find? / Are we runnin’ out of time out here? / Listen... Hey, who’s worryin’ bout cha, babe? / When you whylin out, runnin’ around in these streets.” And the full awareness of solitude— artistically, but also personally and existentially— on “Walk Alone”, where the rapper throws out a real declaration of principles: “ Walk alone, talk alone, get my Charlie Parker on / Make my mark alone, shed light upon the dark alone / Get my sparkle on, it's a mission I'm embarking on / A kamikaze in the danger zone far from home.” It’s an album that has no end if you aren’t afraid to really get all the way into a disheartening analysis of the moment.
It is demanding with the public—it isn’t easy to go all the way on a trip through all-round discouragement—but there is also a place for a small halo of optimism or hope. The album is introspective in its concept and emotion but open, panoramic, and integrating in its sound and musical proposition; it is faithful to a formula and expressive pattern, but also daring and iconoclastic in its approach to other styles. It is classic, and even retro in its form, but modern and challenging in its definition of a sad rap-soul and tragic essence. But “How I Got Over” would be more well-rounded and fascinating if it weren’t for the last two songs, which stand in the way of its excellence, both because of their quality, which is weak and unsuited to the whole, and because of the feeling that they have been added on as filler material—especially because they have no aesthetic or emotional connection to everything that has taken place before. “Web 20/20” and “Hustla” are two inexplicable stains that are highly out of place on an album that was on its way towards an easy outstanding classification. Fortunately, the rating on the score card was almost finalised before these two slip-ups appeared. Here is a firm candidate to be crowned as one of the top three hip hop albums of the year.