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The Daily Tar Heel

Thought Meets Ambition and Old Meets New On Roots' Latest Attempt

The Roots
Phrenology

Finally, the Roots' music has caught up with its ideas.

Socially, politically and emotionally charged, the Roots have acted as the most intelligent hip-hop collaboration since their 1994 major-label premiere, Do You Want More?!!!??! However, MC Black Thought and crew have garnered only a small mix of die-hard followers and casual fans, never breaking into the highest tier of rap icons.

But then again, that is never what the Roots wanted. Much of Black Thought's lyrics circle around the fallacy of black artists rapping about platinum chains and gold teeth when the majority of their audience still struggles with poverty. Instead, Black Thought chooses to spin rhymes about his friend's struggle with a drug addiction and trying to balance his love life with his life on the road performing.

But before Phrenology, the jazzy backbeats, unconventional hip-hop instrumentation and charged lyrics kept the Roots distant, if not elevated, from popular exposure. Even the master of vocal orchestration, the human beat box Rahzel, could not pull the Roots' albums to the top of the charts.

With the energetic, full-bodied blast of stripped-down hip-hop found in Phrenology, much of that has changed. The Roots, however, have not changed. Their work still carries the same weight and awareness that has made the band a welcome refreshment from general hip-hop trends, but their latest attempt is the first time musical prowess has been fused fully with idealistic ambition.

Songs still carry the same swagger and swing, but all the bells and whistles have been torn away. Phrenology ends up capturing all of the Roots' on-stage presence and power without losing the refinement and perfection of a studio production.

But that isn't to say that Phrenology is just the Roots getting pissed at no one listening to them and then screaming about it. Soulful and smooth tracks still give old fans something to groove to. Singers Jill Scott and Nelly Furtado add a sensuous slant to "Sacrifice" and "Something In The Way Of Things (In Town)" -- providing the most familiar Roots feel and melodic intermissions from the rest of the album.

But raucous and throbbing assaults like "Rock You" and "The Seed (2.0)" keep things interesting. Raw and jagged, the tracks crash through the speakers. The bass doesn't hum, it roars. Black Thought's vocals don't purr, they burst.

The Roots finally have produced an album that lives up to all of their ambitions. While Illadelph Halflife and Things Fall Apart share more jazzy mixes and melodic tunes, Phrenology is the best mix of the old and the new.

And it is the tracks that show this same blend that stand out. "Pussy Galore" is a balance between funky flow and powerful punch. Smoothed over by female background vocals and vitalized by rough and simple beats, "Pussy Galore" sums up the entire album in one song.

Though the Roots may have deviated from their own roots in eclectic, rolling hip-hop, they nevertheless have tapped into the roots of true hip-hop. Raw, sharp, yet delightfully defined, Phrenology is thought finally meeting reality.

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at artsdesk@unc.edu.

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