The Roots – How I Got Over

The Roots are the kind of band I really want to hate. They’re a house band for a terrible late night show, they’re all devoutly religious, their lyrics typically attack heady topics like modern society and racism, and above it all, they’re very popular with the same critics that hail Black Eyed Peas and U2 as universal acts. However, despite all of this, I can’t deny the odd power that How I Got Over has; it may not be the best hip hop album you’ll hear all year, but it’s a consistent and fiercely intelligent album that will suck you in easily.

Lyrically, its an inspired take on the typical world view that most intellectual hip-hop acts follow, reminding me of acts like De La Soul or a Tribe Called Quest. Black Thought is a versatile rapper that is able to match vocal dexterity and delivery with thought-provoking lyrics. “If everything is made in China/Are we Chinese?” sounds silly on paper, but delivered here with such melancholy, it sounds almost prophetic. Songs like “Dear God 2.0” or “Now or Never” highlight the album’s early lyrical themes of desperation, ill-content, and dangerous awareness.

However, the album doesn’t stick with the despondent atmosphere; after all, the album is called How I Got Over, not How I Almost, But Didn’t Quite Get Over or How I Got Stuck With It. The quiet, but not particularly subtle switch from dejected and downtrodden to optimistic is a move that would sound a bit gimmicky, but it’s pulled off with such honesty and panache that its hard to not to feel even slightly uplifted afterward. In a music industry that typically doesn’t appreciate anything other than bleak pessimism, it’s rewarding to hear something so obviously geared towards the spirit of, well, getting over and overcoming.

All of the beats, in typical Roots fashion, are not samples, but rather real instruments played in an ineffably professional manner; ?uestlove could show you how it’s done and pound out complex, layered rhythms, but like the rest of the crew, he doesn’t sacrifice the artistic edifice for gratifying ego-tripping. They could blow you away, but instead they underplay their talent, channeling their verbose chops into creating memorable melodies and supporting Black Thought and the guests. Speaking of guests, one of the few problems that How I Got Over has is that it’s formulaic; every song (and I mean every song), brings in a guest to do little more than repeat one or two lines for the chorus, like Monsters of Folk on “Dear God 2.0”.

Apart from that, the next biggest problem is that, surprisingly enough, the later part of the album, the one where the “getting over” motif is supposed to come into play, falls a bit flat. It doesn’t quite reach “We Major” levels of celebration, which is a bit disappointing. While it is nice to see them be more subtle about it, the fact is that song-for-song, the pre-“Flight of Titus” songs are typically better than the last ones. That’s not to say there aren’t highlights in the later crop; songs like “Right On” and “The Fire” are great. Speaking “The Fire”, it serves as the ultimatum of the themes, because the last song on the album “Web 20/20” doesn’t really sound like it belongs on the album.

However, if there was one song that torpedoed the album, it’s the title track. It tries to pass itself off as a Marvin Gaye-style song decrying life growing up as an inner-city youth, but it falls face-first. The percussion is there, the keyboards are there; instrumentally, it’s all there to make the song a fast-paced characterization of the album’s themes. However, the lyrics are just plain clumsy: the chorus chant of “Out on the streets/where I grew up/First thing they teach you is not to give a fuck” is ridiculous. Worse than that however, is the insistence to keep referring to “the streets”, doing it 4 times alone in the first verse. It’s the point of the song, the whole structuring around the line “Out on these streets…”, but it just doesn’t work. At all.

On the whole though, How I Got Over is one of the better hip-hop albums to come out in recent memory. It’s lofty ambitions aren’t met, but it’s a consistently enjoyable, well-written album that channels the intellectualisms of artists as far back as Marvin Gaye and as recent as Talib Kwali. In a world where hip-hop doesn’t always have the most profound things to say, How I Got Over is a surprisingly effective statement; it’s not Black On Both Sides, but it’ll be damned if it doesn’t try.

by Trevor “Sick of the Streets” Johnson

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1 Comment

  1. 09/06/10: Happy Labor Day, Have A Review! « Avery Island: Musical Opinions From Music Geeks said,

    […] The Roots – How I Got Over by Trevor Johnson […]

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