"Dear diary, the fans still swear by me," raps Black Thought, "even though I'm late night now like 'Here's Johnny.'" The notion that the Roots's gig bumping in and out of commercial breaks on Jimmy Fallon's late-night talk show has left them feeling like they've got to prove their chops would seem borne out by the release of their new album How I Got Over. After all, their previous disc, the dark and brooding Rising Down, was so urgent and relevant it's still resonating a mere two years after its release. The Roots, now more than at any other point in their career so far, could actually afford to rest on their laurels. But no, because if the Roots have a constant thread running throughout their back catalogue, it's their urgent need to feel as though they're taking everything to the next level. Or, as the refrain of the title song of their newest album goes, "Someone has to care."
They're driven, even though their latest venture is stylistically the most inert, contemplative, offputtingly soft music they've possibly ever released. As drummer and unofficial spokesman for the band, Questlove hits it on the head when he writes, "all 11 of our records have been a complete 180 turn, the result being the most confused fan base in hip hop." I'd stop short of saying there was a 180-degree turn between Game Theory and Rising Down (both drip with mid-aughts contempt), but the difference is certainly made up in the leap from Rising Down to How I Got Over, which sounds resigned, collapsed from the weight of Rising Down's momentum. It's like a morning after obsessed with the night before, a physically throbbing but emotionally yielding hangover.
And a mildly self-delusional one. The album opens with "A Peace of Light," a jazzy, heavenly prologue that sets the listener up for the Roots to take it to church for a soul colonic, a scrubbing that never actually comes in the 13 tracks that follow. The album opens proper with "Walk Alone" and "Dear God 2.0," both backed by overly patient, deliberate riffs that leave their solemn couplets stark and isolated. "I'm a loner in a world of clones, I'm the piece that don't belong," goes the sentiment in the former. "Dear God, I'm trying hard to reach you," is the claim at the outset of the latter, but by "Now or Never," a few songs later in the tracklist, comes the admission "I would pray to God, but I'm tired of lyin' to him." So thick is the air with the funk of Thomas Aquinas, it's almost a relief to hear Black Thought lapse into a "no homo" moment in the speedy, virtuosic "Web 20/20." Or to hear the band take a seemingly satirical swipe at Auto-Tune in the bonus track "Hustla," with a punk baby's cries tweaked into a whiny chorus. (The effect is not unlike the YouTube vid that proves, given the technology of the moment, even wolves can sing R&B.)
The pull toward religion and the equally forceful repellence against the church (gently) drives the bulk of How I Got Over, but with all due respect to Black Thought's skills as a wordsmith, the topic seems to overwhelm him. Coming on the heels of Rising Down's There's a Riot Going On, it's disheartening to come back, once again, to the question What's Going On?