Phrenology

The Roots

MCA Records, 2002

REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/13/2003

It's hard to believe that having live musicians could be a detriment, but in the world of hip-hop, The Roots have had to constantly battle to keep their music at the forefront. Even so, many critics refuse to write about anything other than drummer ?uestlove's abilities.

Not that ?uestloves accomplishments DON'T warrant press: he's one of the best drummers in popular music. But far too often, The Roots' great albums get overshadowed by people obsessing over the fact that they actually have musicians playing instruments. Hopefully, Phrenology will finally turn people's ears onto their actual output.

Like the title of the album (and its cover), Phrenologymy_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 is incredibly cerebral. At times, the album breaks into jazzy improvisations, minimalistic hip-hop and finally, punk. The album is The Roots' hardest album yet. Its title track is supported by a pulverizing bass line and backed up with Black Thought's boasting of his lyrical (and physical) toughness. It's a great song, but it brings back memories of when A Tribe Called Quest tried to carefully walk the gangsta walk, even though their best albums were far removed from typical gangsta rap clichés.

Phrenology's greatest strength is its musical ambition: the band incorporates so many elements into the album, yet is somehow are able to keep all their balls in the air. In one glorious moment -- "The Seed (2.0)" -- The Roots come into their own and produce a soon-to-be hip-hop classic. Cody Chestnutt drops into the studio and the band glides around Cody's presence so soulfully that you would swear that honey was leaking from your speakers.

Phrenology does get tangled up in its ambitions, however. In the epic 11-or-so minute song "Water," The Roots go full-on avant-garde jazz. Once again, I'll take over-ambition over timidness any day, but in this case, it smacks of self-indulgence, like Sonic Youth's most pretentious works. It also doesn't have the uniformity of Things Fall Apart, their last masterstroke (which, by no coincidence, contained two or three songs that instantly grabbed you by the lapels).

"Water" comes midway through Phrenology, violently breaking up its continuity. However, it isn't a fatal blow. "Pussy Galore" is a provocative examination of relationships, but as usual, the band doesn't forget their groove. And Jill Scott proves once again why she's the ultimate guest vocalist for The Roots on the song "Complexity."

The Roots are all about blurring musical lines of perception. You can't categorize Phrenology as a hip-hop, rap, rock or R&B album. All you are left to do is listen to it as an entire product and come to your own conclusions. For those who are tired of hearing airwaves full of songs featuring guest vocals by Ja Rule, this album is worth wading through a few mistakes. In fact, it's the mess-ups that make Phrenology enduring.

Rating: B

User Rating: B


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© 2003 Sean McCarthy and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of MCA Records, and is used for informational purposes only.