Tuesday, August 29, 2006

What, Me Worry?: the Roots' Game Theory

I might be part of a dying breed: the new Roots album Game Theory is out today, and I'm destined to buy it (as soon as pay day rolls around, that is), despite having downloaded it already over a month ago.

I've given the album multiple listens, tried to scrutinize every little detail of it despite the shitty stereo in my car, and the sad truth is this: I like the album, but I don't love the album. Given all the hype that has been circulating about the album, whether contained to Okayplayer or not, I was expecting a grandiose, no holds barred achievement, and instead all I've heard is a very good - but not great - album.

And I'm STILL going to buy it.

I'll continually list the Roots as one of my favorite artists, not merely because of their output but because of what I perceive them to stand for - the furtherance of hip hop. Despite what seems like the collapse of a second revival Native Tongues movement, I still look to the Roots and all their various colleagues (Common, Talib, Mos, Erykah et al) for some sort of sign as to where hip hop, now in its middle-age era, can go. To me, there has been no greater achievement in hip hop in the past few years than Outkast's A Love Below/Speakerboxxx, the Roots' Phrenology, and Common's Electric Circus (don't get me wrong, I loooove plenty of albums other than those), all of which push the boundaries of the genre to overlap with and expand beyond other genres.

Which is why the Roots' output since then has been disappointing. Phrenology was challenging because of what it contained and pointed towards; Game Theory is challenging because it doesn't point towards much beyond self-concern. The Roots had opened the door previously, but don't seem quite ready to go through it. Instead, we have a band that seems too concerned with outside perception and criticism to finish the job they helped to start.

It also explains their recent campaign to validate Black Thought. In response to review after review pointing to Black Thought as the weak link, Questo's resigned himself to blaming lazy journalists and Okayplayer's started a microsite as some sort of quasi election campaign for Black Thought-as-Best-MC-Ever. It doesn't matter so much that Questo's kinda right (Pitchfork's got way too much sway in the game for what it is: an overblown website of indie rock cranks), or that Black Thought is, pound for pound, a great MC - the Roots should never let such criticism sway them, because being on the defense has preoccupied them from getting to where they should be.

And I'm STILL going to buy the album.

Because, if Questo's posts on Okayplayer are any indication, the Roots are concerned with establishing themselves through sales first and foremost, with their backs-up against the rock crits as part and parcel of the same thing. That's not, in itself, a bad thing - everyone's got to eat, and it'd be a sad, sad world if the Roots had to still keep day jobs. The Roots should be one of the most profitable bands in the world, if artistic talent had anything to do with commerce. It's still grossly disappointing that they didn't take the carte blanche the HOV was seemingly willing to offer them to release the most-progressive-hip-hop-album-ever. The Roots are still the most important act in hip hop today, even if it's more for sheer potential than actual product. If they're worried that Def Jam has them on a short leash in terms of sales, well, I'll do my part.

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