Artist: The Roots
Released: November 26th, 2002
Highlights: Rock You, Thought @ Work, The Seed (2.0), Rhymes & Ammo
By the time “Phrenology” came out, The Roots were not strangers to eclecticism. This was, after all, a group that was at the forefront of the alternative hip hop movement. By playing instruments and, therefore, producing their beats and grooves in a more organic manner than most artists of the genre, the Philadelphia band was pushing boundaries from the get go, be it by centering their music on a loose, jazzy, and smoky atmosphere; by lyrically sidestepping some of the common themes of the rhythm; or by occasionally toying with the rap format itself, as their debut work, “Organix”, featured a twelve-minute song that is better described as a hip hop jam and pretty much all of their first records presented spoken-word tracks that dabbled in poetry and emotional storytelling.
Still, for anyone that was tracking their progress up to the release of “Phrenology”, its release must have come with quite a shock. Just three years before it, The Roots had succeeded in breaking through on the strength of their fourth work, the hip hop classic “Things Fall Apart”. And although, in it, the band had been able to retain all elements that made their music unique and noteworthy, one of the achievements of that record was exactly the trimming down of their indulgent tendencies, which often revealed what appeared to be a lack of focus, and the delivery of a musical package that albeit ambitious, conceptual, and experimental, also happened to feel like a concentrated effort that balanced those audacious flights with accessible hip hop. As such, “Phrenology”, one could expect, would be a continuation of that progression.
The Roots, however, are not an ordinary hip hop group. And, because of that, “Phrenology” is not the run-of-the-mill successor of a classic. Rather than building on what was laid down, the band – perhaps knowing that the only path to advance after such a marvelous work was to look elsewhere – destroys what was in place. Consequently, in a way, a parallel could easily be drawn between “Phrenology” and The Roots’ initial effort, “Organix”, because the two records feel like the start of something new: they venture into the unknown, tapping their way through a dark room with the knowledge that there is a valuable discovery there. The search is messy, plenty of objects are broken, a few stumbles occur, there are plenty of growing pains, and at times one wonders if the quest is even worth it; but, in the end, something of value is found, even if it might not exactly be what the band was looking for in the first place.
The difference between “Organix” and “Phrenology”, of course, lies in the nearly ten years that separate them; a time The Roots used to go from a promise in development to recognized artists. Due to that, not only is “Phrenology” far more satisfying, but it is also a more interesting and adventurous journey. And it is precisely in there that rests the shock of “Phrenology”, because rather than showcasing a dozen different ways of putting together a hip hop track with jazz flavors, which was the whole operating procedure of “Organix”, it is an album of variety so wild that it is a bit jarring. As besides carrying that signature The Roots combination, “Phrenology” dives into funk, neo soul, rock, punk, electronic music, and more.
Aside from “The Seed (2.0)”, a rock-rap fusion guided by an addictive riff that culminates in one sweetly melodic chorus courtesy of guest Cody ChesnuTT, there is absolutely nothing in “Phrenology” as catchy and immediate as many of the tracks from “Things Fall Apart”, like “The Next Movement”, “Dynamite!”, “Adrenaline!”, and – of course – “You Got Me”. Moreover, whether it is in the seven-minute sound collage that concludes the otherwise excellent “Water” or in the passable electronic hip hop experiment of “Thirsty!”, there are a few moments here that would have been better left on the cutting room floor; especially considering the whole album clocks in at seventy minutes. Because of that, “Phrenology” is one of those projects that demands that listeners work towards appreciation. With time, its unproductive or indulgent detours emerge as natural parts of the discovery process it documents so well and honestly; in addition, more importantly, true musical gems begin to pop up from where, initially, it seemed like no value could be extracted.
When it comes to the highlights of the package, “Rock You” may appear straightforward at first, but soon enough its threatening, banging, distorted beat turns into a heavy hook; meanwhile, both its lyrics and the way it unexpectedly segues into the twenty-second hardcore punk curveball of “!!!!!!!” are a perfect introduction to the wildness of “Phrenology”. Likewise, “Thought @ Work” might seem too messy on an initial listen, but truthfully it is yet another hard-hitting piece of hip hop; here, over a funky base featuring horns with enough swagger to drag even the shy onto the dace floor, the band unleashes a layer of noises that at times recalls the Beastie Boys in “Paul’s Boutique” while Black Thought raps viciously. Finally, stuck between the messy seven-minute “Something in the Way of Things (In Town)”, which matches spoken-word vocals, electronic interludes, and instrumental breaks, and closer “Thirsty!”, “Rhymes and Ammo” can be overlooked, but besides having the most infectious chorus of the record, it also shows how powerful a rap track can be by using three basic elements: one solid drum beat, one frantic keyboard hook, and a fantastic vocalist.
Even if it lacks the immediacy of “Things Fall Apart”, “Phrenology”, in its all-encompassing and somewhat conflicting glory, does not leave poppier moments out of the equation. Both “Sacrifice” (featuring Nelly Furtado) and “Complexity” (featuring Jill Scott) use the traditional recipe – the one that launched “You Got Me” to success – of joining rapping verses delivered over relaxing grooves with sweeter choruses that are melodically sung by female vocalists. But like the inventive little creature it is, the album does not approach them as straightforwardly. In “Sacrifice”, the chorus is more of a duet, with the relatively flat – nearly spoken – melody trying to recreate an argument; it is an interesting concept, but the tune fails because the rapping lacks punch and Nelly’s falsetto delivery comes off as more annoying than appealing. “Complexity” is more successful in that proposal, as its unusual beat does not stop Jill from delivering a touching chorus and coming off as a better companion to Black Thought. On a similar tone, “Break You Off” is another utter success; its light guitar touches and the soothing R&B vocals of Musiq serve as thick hooks under the rapping, and the track has a wonderful, equally blissful, instrumental coda that extends the song past the seven-minute mark.
“Phrenology” is hard to define. It can be too complex and indulgent, as it is in “Something in the Way of Things (In Town)”, but it can also be basic and alluring, like it manages to be when it builds “Rolling With Heat” by using just drums and processed horns and “Quills” by using drums, bass, and fuzzy synths. It can employ guitars for beautiful picking adornments, as in “Pussy Galore”; for good rock riffing, as in “The Seed (2.0)”; for lightning-fast punk, as in “!!!!!!!”; or throw them out alongside other instruments for some electronic trip, as in “Thirsty!”. It can be downright wonderful (“Thought @ Work”); good but flawed (“Water”); or passable (“Sacrifice”). It can be jazz, hip hop, rock, funk, neo soul, or poetry. It is confusing, it is delightful, it is overwhelming, and it is – most of all – the work of a band that tried to start from scratch after finally having brought their sound to full maturity. It is a bold move, and its successes and failures show that The Roots are ultimately too good, creative, and artistic to make the same album twice.