August 2, 2010

Music Review: The Roots, How I Got Over. ~ Karthik Sonty

You can sense the power, the potential energy.

There’s not much I enjoy about living in Tenafly, NJ.  Northern New Jersey is lifeless and so we escape into New York City. But there the culture is material, the personalities are contrived, and the beauty is plastic.  Sitting in limbo, most hours are spent lamenting about having nothing to do or actually doing nothing.  However the proximity of NYC does afford the average New Jersey suburbanite a few avenues of entertainment.  For me these sanctuaries took form in the awesome venues scattered throughout the city, which supported my musical development.  I would convince my parents to drop me at Hammerstein and Highline Ballrooms, The Bowery, Summer Stage in Central Park, Terminal 5, and others, to escape the oppressive boredom.  We would pull up to these refuges and, in our teenage pursuit of autonomy, my friends and I would jump out of the car into a world that was finally ours (or so we thought).

One of my earliest such memories came when I was 15 and somehow garnered approval to see The Roots at Irving Plaza.  It was just after New Years and I remember being told to bundle up in front of the specific high school friends one tries to impress.  I shrugged it off.  I had stayed up the night before feverishly listening to Phrenology (2003) and Things Fall Apart (1999), and had the buzz of virgin-independence, welling-anticipation, and a few pulls from a plastic rum bottle.

Walking out of that show, I was convinced that there was no other band on Earth that could perform like The Roots.  Their sheer musicality, which intertwined the essences of jazz, blues, and folk, was unlike anything I had ever heard in hip-hop.  And so life went on, but I reserved a place for The Roots in my All-Time-Favorite-Artists-To-See list.
Since then I’ve been to 4 more of their shows (Most recently on June 15th) and have, without fail, been impressed by their stage presence.  When Black Thought grabs the mic, Kamal gets behind the keys, Knuckles sets up his congas, Cap’n Kirk straps on his guitar, and ?uestlove bashfully waltzes his way into the drum kit, you feel an agitation that’s more than excitement.  It’s the aura of greatness that tickles every nerve in you.  It’s that you are witnessing genius at work.  Like standing at the foot of Mount Olympus, you can sense the power, the potential energy, capable of being released.

Now, being that this is an album review, I can’t simply rave about The Roots’ concerts.  But therein lies the beauty of How I Got Over (2010).  On this album, we see The Roots in living color.  It’s as close to the real show as it gets (and perhaps better than their live album The Roots Come Alive).  Through its soulful choruses, Black’s lyrical proficiency, and the bands relentless ability to fuse genres, the album organically sets a bar that few studio albums can hope for.

How I Got Over was titled to develop the metaphor of struggle (escaping a rough upbringing and the Bush-era) and absolution.  It follows a string of darker albums (like Rising Down and Game Theory) but doesn’t submit to The Roots’ former bleakness.  Instead it offers lyrical and musical hints at meliorism, as well as perhaps a conceptual one.  On this album we see the names Truck North, Dice Raw, STS, and P.O.R.N. strewn across the artists list.  These eclectic artists together comprise the Money Making Jam Boys, a side-project of MC’s Black Thought has been cultivating.  In the spirit of rebirth, it would seem fitting that the vapid world of contemporary rap should find some sort of renaissance in these talented young artists.  As STS says on his mixtape, “Now who say that Hip-hop’s dead, I say Demand More.”  Maybe this latter meaning is contrived, but any way you slice it, this record marks a triumph in the genre (whatever it maybe).  Seeing the Roots has always been how I got over the boredom of suburbia, and this album might just be how I got over the monotony of recent hip-hop.

Karthik Sonty is a recent graduate of Colby College with a penchant for philosophy, strong opinions on music, and obsession with rock-climbing.  He placates these passions by writing these musical perspectives down, infusing some philosophy, and sending them to a journal in a town called Boulder.  He has written in a broad array of media, including documents for the UN’s World Food Programme, papers for Undergraduate Symposia, and a music blog called PolarBear NeckWear.  Since he graduated, he has been trying to reconcile his idealistic urges to save the world, his youthful urges to explore the world, and practical urges to survive the world.

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