Between the excesses of commercial rap and the indifference shown to underground emcees lies the Middle Earth of hip hop. In this oasis of beats and rhymes, bright emcees and creative producers make albums that garner critical acclaim by being true to hip hop’s goal, to get heads nodding while opening the minds in them. Talib Kweli’s Quality and The Roots’ Phrenology fulfill these goals, and push them, as well.
After collaborations with Mos Def and DJ Hi-Tek, Kweli now has his first proper solo album, Quality.
The rocking guitar and horns of the first track, “Rush,” serve as an appetizer for the glory that awaits on the second track, “Get By.” Kweli describes the struggle to “Get By” in the hood — not about gangs or gunplay, but about just getting up every morning and doing without the things most others have.
The track displays Kweli’s lyrical virtuosity — “We commute to computers/Spirits stay mute as your eagles spread rumors” — and pleasantly
jars with a refrain after each bar, a gospel-sung chorus and background sampling of the incomparable Nina Simone, all accompanied by the crisp piano of a Kanye West beat.
Kweli shows off his soft side in the middle third of Quality. On “Joy,” Kweli rhymes about the pregnancies of his wife and raising his kids. “Talk to You (Lil’ Darlin’),” a re-make of the Eddie Hendricks standard, features Bilal singing the hook as Kweli drops sweet nothings like, “You must live in the infinite darkness that exists when I close my eyes.” West also pulls out an ill beat on “Good to You,” a battle track that shows why Kweli is at the top of the game when it comes to hip-hop lyricism.
In the three-plus years since the Grammy award-winning Things Fall Apart, The Roots have been, as usual, the busiest band in the industry. They’ve worked on projects for D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Christina Aguilera, and Jay-Z, among others, and toured almost non-stop. Aided by new guitarist Ben Kenney, The Roots still found time to create a stunning disc with Phrenology.
From the verbal tour de force of “Thought @ Work, ” where he comments on materialism by saying “f— getting money for real, get freedom,” to “Quills” where he says “The s— The Roots started got these other artists going through changes,” Black Thought is in the zone. He even cops a Tone Loc flow on “The Seed (2.0),” a track that features a ’60s guitar twang from Kenney and striking vocals by Cody ChesnuTT.
The absence of emcees Dice Raw and Malik B would be a detriment if it wasn’t for the dominating presence of Black Thought. Never before has an emcee been so well-mated to his instrumentation. There are frequent moments on Phrenology when you don’t even pay attention to the lyrics. Black Thought’s voice is so powerful it makes comprehension unnecessary.
What really sets this album apart is The Roots’ willingness to go places most in hip hop never approach. Kenney dared the band to record “!!!!!!! (Track 2),” a 24-second track reminiscent of early ’80s hardcore punk band Bad Brains. “Break You Off” includes an enjoyable hook sung by Musiq Soulchild, the signature snare and kick drum of ?uestlove, and no less than four cellos.
On “Water,” after a wonderfully catchy, handclap-driven first movement, the ten-minute track features more spacey experimenting than hip hop has done since The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique in 1988. Heartbeats, creepy pianos, piercing screaming, rain and more combine in the final two movements to provide the best
lay-on-your-back-and-stare-at-the-ceiling song this year. (An achievement for hip hop indeed).
Acclaimed playwright/poet Amari Baraka ends the album with the stirring poem “Something in the Way of Things (In Town).” Phrenology also includes great liner notes, a Roots trademark.
Phrenology is old school, new school and grad school all rolled into one. If Phrenology isn’t a better hip hop album than Things Fall Apart, it’s only because Phrenology is bigger than hip hop. Whereas Things … is about the purification of hip hop’s essence, Phrenology is about the broadening of its horizons. It’s the hip hop album for people who never thought they’d like hip hop. If you dig the likes of Radiohead, Miles Davis and/or BjÃ¶rk, then Phrenology might be for you.
The first ten months of 2002 lacked any high-mindedness or originality in hip hop. But with Quality and Phrenology, and the soon to be released Electric Circus from fellow Okayplayer Common (recorded at Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studio), it should be a feliz navidad for fans of intelligent hip hop.