The latest entry in my weekly column at Refined Hype. This week: The Roots, and their classic second album, "Illadelph Halflife".
Typically most hip-hop groups don’t have a drummer. But The Roots are no typical rap group. The casual, or less informed hip-hop fan may think of The Roots as Jimmy Fallon’s house band. But while they they're technically right, The Roots have accomplished far more than being the most eclectic band on late night television.
Over the years The Roots have been one of the most creative and original groups in hip-hop. Led by rapper Black Thought and drummer ?uestlove, the group has carved their own niche in the industry. Since their debut album “Organix”, they have perfected the use of live instruments and found the perfect way to rap about socially relevant issues.
Their second album, “Illadelph Halflife” may be their most inventive and arguably their best. It's a masterful piece of work throughout, especially because it is fundamentally original; there is absolutely no large reliance on samples here. “Illadelph” is pure music at its best. The introduction to the album states that: ''when rap music began, most people thought it was a fad.” Using that as inspiration, the group moves forward from there and with each track, shows why that statement might be a bit off.
The Roots are such an interesting group and one reason is due to the various musical genres and influences they tackle on each track. “Illadelph Halflife” is littered with Miles Davis sounding jazz riffs and soulful melodies that resemble classic R&B.
On "No Alibi", ?uestlove makes his presence known with some fantastic drum beats, while Malik B dishes out one of the best verses on the entire album. He is able to describe the state of urban America when he raps: “Until I fulfill the term of my prophecy/my attitude is scarred by this inner-city urban/Iller dolo stress on my brain just like a turban/Who get grazed by the bullet?/Triggers,who's quick to pull it?
"Respond/React" is my personal favorite track from this album. The laid-back production, and jazzy instrumentation mixed with bugged-out rhymes combines to make a socially relevant, foot-tapping track.
The lyrics are intelligent and novelistic, with Black Thought rapping: “Hey yo, I'm just a lyricist, a chemist of the hemp/The beat pimp, the ill Philly resident/That's far from hesitant, corrupt like a President/Never benevolent but poetically prevalent.”
"UNIverse at War" is a great track, and it features a cameo from another socially conscious artist, Common. The beat follows the theme of the album, and is a laid back, instrument heavy production that showcases the MC’s.
The track works on so many different levels, from its philosophical lyrics to the slew of thoughtful, yet witty lines from Black Thought and Common Sense. Common finishes off the track as he paints a vivid picture and raps: “For peace we skate, crackers we roll or player hate/Call each other cuz cause of how we relate/I see way too many Cadillacs with dope man plates/Through the wind and blow-ups, is how we communicate/Harmonizing through beeper and reefer/The city got my peoples in a sleeper, talk is getting cheaper.”
In addition to Common there are a lot of guest spots on the album, including Raphael Saadiq (“What They Do"), Q-Tip (“The Universal Side”), David Murray ("Dave Vs. Us"), and D'Angelo (The Hypnotic), among others. Usually I think numerous guest spots can mess with the flow of an album, but each is used perfectly on their respective track.
For example, on the last track, “The Adventures in Wonderland”, the involvement of spoken word artist Ursula Rucker makes the track one of the albums most original and inventive. The track is a brutal rap poem performed by Rucker over a truly spooky beat.
The track details a woman's plight up from the ghettos to the top of a fool's-paradise prostitute's glory, only to crash down into poverty and the loss of respect from her family. She illustrates the raw, gritty truth of this “wonderland” when she says: “The picture grew clearer; I made the move to rear her/In a life wanting for nothing/So I got into this drug thing/Not doing, but dealing.”
The organic combination of thunderous live drums, instruments and rapper Black Thought's smooth rhyme patterns shows that the group has no equal in the industry. The Roots have an extensive body of work, but “Illadelph Halflife” is a distinct classic, the best example of their spontaneous and distinct sound.