Decade :: The Roots, Phrenology (2002)

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What is it that makes us want to deconstruct art by units of time? Lists. We love making them. We love arguing over them. And here, on the verge of a new decade, we’re in a position to do the same again. What were the best albums of the past ten years?

Here at AD, we started talking it through and decided we weren’t going to add to the cacophony of lists being put out by various music pubs. There are enough of those. Rather, we elected to let our four main writers have a chance to write about any and all of the albums they felt shaped the last decade.

From the beginning of October through the end of December, Monday through Thursday, AD will feature a post, or posts, from a particular writer detailing their favorite albums of the decade. On a given week there might be one album a writer talks about, there might be six, but they’ll get a chance to have their say on everything that comes to mind. Our hope for you, the reader, is that you’ll jump in with your comments on the album selections — tell us why you agree or disagree — and also be exposed to some albums that you may have missed over the last ten years. Now, as the decade starts to wind down, let’s celebrate.

PhrenologyThere may not have been a more musically vital and important group in hip-hop in the 2000s than the Roots. For all the talk of various MCs like Jay-Z dominating hip-hop as a genre, musically the Roots have been more consistent, more interesting and more invigorating. Starting with 1999’s Things Fall Apart, the Roots put together a string of five albums in ten years that made the band certifiable giants of artistic expression in hip-hop, and none better represented that than 2002’s Phrenology.

Phrenology was important for many reasons in the Roots’ body of work. It was their first album following the critical (and commercial) success of Things Fall Apart, but it would also be the first album done without founding member/rapper Malik B. who was dealing with drug addictions.

Things Fall Apart had fused the Roots’ impressive live show into a sense of studio prowess that pulled from their traditional bag of tricks in jazz, hip-hop and soul, but also used elements of noise collage/musique concrete. Phrenology builds on that as the band continued to harness ?uestlove’s impressive percussion and the caustic instrumentation. The album opens proper with “Rock You,” a bit of electro-clash underlining a vicious delivery by Black Thought. The band takes chances throughout the album by including songs like “!!!!!!!,” a Bad Brains inspired hardcore piece that clocks in at 25 seconds and serves as the bridge between “Rock You”‘s claustrophobic anger and “Sacrifice”‘s r&b driven structure. ?uestlove’s drumming comes back to the fore for Talib Kweli’s guest turn on “Rolling With Heat,” recorded in a way that makes the lo-fi pops of the snare and hi-hats sound positively glowering with energy.

The album hits its emotional and creative highpoint starting with a re-working of Cody Chesnutt’s “The Seed.” A successful single for the band, it channels the neo-soul leanings of the band perfectly, and leads into the album’s other single, “Break You Off,” which towards the fifth minute of its seven minute run time, delves into a drum-and-bass and strings section. This is all just preparation for “Water,” one of the most challenging and amazing pieces of music the Roots have ever recorded. One of the album’s most personal pieces – as it deals directly with Malik B.’s drug struggles – “Water” opens with a classic sounding Roots song that becomes, by its halfway mark, a cryptic sound collage representing the process of getting high and going through addiction. It is in turns disturbing and full of distraught, frayed moments. “Quills” and “Pussy Galore” keep the darker mood and the album closes with a spoken word poem by Amiri Baraka, “Something In the Way of Things (In Town),” backed by the jazz fusion the band had unleashed in spots throughout the album.

Phrenology has its rivals for my favorite Roots album (Things Fall Apart and Game Theory, especially), but as far as being the most forward-thinking record in their body of work, it is their most important release of the 00s and is on par with the best artistic rock albums of the same era. words/ j neas

MP3: The Roots :: Rolling With Heat
MP3: The Roots :: Water

7 thoughts on “Decade :: The Roots, Phrenology (2002)

  1. Phrenology is unqustionably daring and impressive, but my own personal opinion is that The Roots seem to have thrown everything at the wall, confident that it will all stick. Unfortunately there are too many experiments that don’t stand up to repeated listening, and ultimately cause me to ‘pass over’ this record in favour of something I can enjoy all the way through – such as Things Fall Apart.

    I think I’ve had to delete a whole FOUR tracks of Phrenology from my MP3 player in the hope of making the record more cohesive/listenable – which is fair enough, but the biggest shame in my opinion , is the track “Water”. The first half of the track is amazing, but while the remainder may be a conceptual experiment, it is unlistenable, and far too lengthy. Just to be able to include it on a mix for friends I’ve had to edit the track and remove that last part entirely.

    So in summary, just a little restraint on behalf of the band would have gone a long way.

  2. @Neil – I can see where you’re coming from very easily, and there are times (mostly when I’m not really listening to Phrenology the album and just skipping through for my favorite songs) that I’ll give “Water” a pass. Maybe I’m just a sucker for hearing truly, genre-hopping work out of a hip-hop group, especially in a genre (just like any other, but more so, for various reasons) that can be so painfully insular at times. I have a few other hip-hop records due for Decade write-up before the end of the year and each of them holds some of these same qualities.

  3. I think that The Roots took a lot of chances on this album. The reason that it works is because they have the attitude of not caring if it works. I mean that in a good way. I guess a better way to put it would be to say that they have the artistic integrity to take these chances. The Roots don’t follow trends, they set them. Nice pic.

    Anyone interested in ?uestlove should also check out Al Green’s “Lay It Down”. Quest produced and played on the album. The tones on the album just sound so good. A real return to form for Al Green.

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