Now that they’re backed by Def Jam prez Jay-Z, the Roots should be feeling better than gettin’ head on a Sunday afternoon. With the major marketing dollars afforded by rap’s most respected record company at their disposal, the Philadelphia outfit is finally free to drop ambitious, thinking man’s hip-hop with no qualms. But judging from the glum Game Theory, the group’s seventh studio album, ?uestlove and crew are not exactly in a celebratory mood these days.
From poet Wadud Ahmad’s foreboding spoken-word chorus on “False Media” to the touching J Dilla memorial “Can’t Stop This,” this latest offering from the Roots is a dark ride that starts off agitated, then ends melancholy. Although both the dreamy “Atonement” and the reflective “Clock With No Hands” maintain the mellow vibe, they offer Black Thought a sonic platform to wax poetic. On the latter, he spits, “Sitting in the staircase holding back tears/ Looking over mad years of photographs/Pictures of some places I ain’t never going back.”
The Peedi Peedi-–guested “Longtime,” with its rigorous bass and ?uest’s crashing drums, stands as one of the LP’s most upbeat gems. But on the brilliantly sinister “All in the Music” clanging percussive slaps and a Knight Rider–-like guitar riff set an eerie stage for Thought and a resurrected Malik B. to trade rapid-fire lyrics about Philly’s rugged terrain (“I’m from the illest part of the Western Hemisphere/So if you into sightseeing, don’t visit there”).
On every one of their albums, the Roots have continued to evolve and experiment with their sound. With tracks ranging from high velocity boast fests (“Here I Come”) to spacey jams (“Living in a New World”), Game Theory is still a somber disc with a few bright spots. While Roots loyalists should be pleased with the end results, prospective new fans may be left wanting just a little bit more.—BRETT JOHNSON