The Roots, Phrenology (2002)
Much like 19th century scientists studied the shape of a person’s brain in a hapless attempt to determine the extent of their mental acuities, the Roots absorb the latest music trends on Phrenology in an attempt to challenge their long-standing image as cool, jazz-inflected hip-hoppers. Disparate sounds appear throughout the group’s fifth studio effort: broken-beat and nu-jazz a la Jazzanova (“Break You Off”), punk hardcore circa early-‘80s Bad Brains (“!!!!!”), and jazz-rock reminiscent of Miles Davis’ Jack Johnson (“Water”). There’s a glossiness to Phrenology, too, found in its many guest appearances (including Nelly Furtado, Musiq, and Jill Scott), resulting in too many star turns that seem more like distracting, self-congratulatory tactics than synergistic pairings. So why is Phrenology the best Roots album since Do You Want More?!!!??!? The Philadelphia band has finally, once and for all, escaped the creative cul-de-sac that followed the release of that breakthrough classic, an album that provided a musical blueprint for the neo-soul movement with its smooth, hard bop beats. On Phrenology, the Roots are vivid and brash, funking hard on tracks such as “Rock You,” where the beat hits like a heart thumping against your chest. Their new member, guitarist Ben Kenney, proves to be a key addition, and his scratch guitar licks transform songs such as “The Seed 2.0” into marvelously abrasive wig-outs. Stark without being minimalist, Phrenology sidesteps the murky overproduction and mushy bass and drum grooves that bogged down their 1999 effort, Things Fall Apart. In the end, Phrenology’s brilliance lies in the Roots’ ability to appropriate pre-existing musical styles without straying from their core identity as a “live” hip-hop band. Their leap into the rolling drum ‘n’ bass that closes “Break You Off” doesn’t seem like a radical departure, but an interlude that makes perfect sense given the track’s soft, whimsical quietude. It’s the mark of a band that, having made its mark as mind-blowing innovators, are still capable of successfully reinventing themselves. Phrenology marked the Soulquarians’ final attempt to break away from the neo-soul ghetto before splintering — a gambit also illustrated on Common’s Electric Circus. Heard now, of course, it seems silly to elevate the album above Illadelph Halflife and Things Fall Apart. It has also inspired fan debate, with some calling it too erratic and others delighting in its cacophonous experiments. MCA Records.