The Roots – How I Got Over
Def Jam: 2010
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Just like any act with a strong catalog and hardcore following, the Roots will always have their releases placed under the most intense of critical microscopes. While other acts might be able to get away with a flub here or there, the Legendary Philly crew is held to a higher standard. But one thing that must be realized is that this group is not going to recreate the magic heard on any of their previous efforts for one gigantic reason – The Roots have routinely changed up their sound ever since dropping Organix in 1993.
From there, they went on to dabble in various incarnations of hip-hop, from more jazz-based projects (Do You Want More?!!!??! and Illadelph Halflife), to an experiment in pop and funk (The Tipping Point), to angst-ridden political explosions (Rising Down), and everything in between. As such, whether you like it or not, you cannot expect the Roots to deliver anything short of forward-thinking music with each and every release. And, luckily for longtime fans and newcomers alike, Questlove and company have again put together an album that finds the guys creating music that is equal parts progression and pure quality.
How I Got Over distinguishes itself from the rest of the Roots illustrious catalog right from the start with the female members of Dirty Projectors doing what they do best on album-opener “A Piece of Light”. From there, the record storms through musical styles and emotions until closing with another bouncy instrumental, “Tunnel Vision”. That track then bleeds into two straightforward rap attacks in Money Making Jam Boys show-off “Web 20/20” and “Hustla”, which utilizes a loop of an Auto-Tuned crying baby that, somehow, works.
While the production and rapping on here are nothing short of fantastic, it’s actually the pacing of this record that is especially noteworthy. The Roots’s ability to craft a well-rounded album is nothing new, but it’s still one of their most highly respected talents. Each track on here seamlessly blends into the next to create a true “album” vibe, an element that’s lost too often in today’s hip-hop climate. The one-two punch of “The Day” and “Right On” is especially well crafted with its seamless transition. It even evokes a throwback to the days of LPs when sides A and B would feature distinctive changes in sound and style.
To that effect, How I Got Over finds its two sides broken into emotions matching the years during which Obama was seeking office and eventually won the election. Through the title-track, the album sticks to downtrodden lyrics and hazy production that perfectly define the band’s political outlook. And although we have moved into the hopeful Obama years, the lingering negative impact of the Bush presidency remains even after the soaring tribute to the late J Dilla and Baatin, “DillaTUDE: The Flight of Titus”.
As such, the album never fully recovers from the dark, dreary atmospherics of the first half. The Roots almost reach triumphant levels on the two John Legend-assisted tracks, “Doin It Again” and “The Fire”. But both are more aggravated battle cries than victory anthems, though the latter comes close. The only real assertion of hope comes through in one of the album’s finest cuts, “The Day”. The track is an undeniable hit thanks to its sun-in-your-face vibes, uplifting hook from Patty Crash, and killer guest verses from Blu and Phonte. The two underground heroes also appear on highlights “Radio Daze” and “Now or Never”, respectively.
Yet, one of the more moving pieces on How I Got Over arrives early during with the piano-driven “Dear God 2.0”. Propelled by a somber hook from Monster of Folk’s Jim James, who you might also know from My Morning Jacket, this cut is especially poignant thanks to the words of Black Thought. His bars are riddled with defeated, on-point rhymes — except for the one flub in the beginning — that touch on the numerous issues facing our country and entire world. And he really hits his mark when he laments that we’re all too numb to even realize how fucked up everything is.
Surprisingly, Thought sounds terribly uninspired on another instant standout, “Right On”, that blends in a Joanna Newsom sample without it sounding shoehorned or tacked on. The track, which also hosts a refreshing verse from newcomer STS, should be an absolute powerhouse. And, for the most part, it is. But it’s nearly deflated when Black Thought delivers some lackluster punch lines — “counting on me like a digit”; “coming up shorter than a midget”; and so on. The aforementioned elements of the track are strong enough to pick up the slack, but damn, talk about a disappointing performance from one of hip-hop’s best and most under-appreciated MCs.
To be fair, it’s easy to overlook those lyrical missteps when you consider that Black Thought is nearly flawless across the rest of the LP. Hell, that actually goes for the other easily noticeable flaws on here. One clear glaring issue at first listen was the decision to again utilize Dice Raw for several hooks, just as the Roots did on Rising Down. But as you continue to spin How I Got Over, you begin to appreciate his aching, less-than-perfect vocals as another haunting piece of the record’s depressing first half. Beyond that, it’s those repeated listens that allow you to grasp the passion and relevance echoing throughout the record. This album is yet another stamp on the hip-hop world by the Legendary Roots Crew, who appear prepared to continue moving forward.