Near the end of The Roots' sixth album is a song (the 10-minute-plus "Water") that underlines, italicizes and bold faces the problem that has always plagued the group: They are too smart, too thoughtful, too much for hip-hop. Sliding over drummer ?uestlove and bassist Leon Hubbard's stuttering strut, head voice Black Thought holds an intervention for erstwhile group member Malik B, who appears on all previous Roots albums but is noticeably absent here. "Yo, you need to walk straight, master your high/Son you missin' out on what's passing you by," Black Thought says, aiming the chorus at one set of ears. "I done seen the streets suck a lot of cats dry/But not you and I my nigga/We got to get/Come on, over over the water." Then the song follows Malik B on the downward spiral of drug addiction, listed in the credits as "The Abyss" and "The Drowning," otherwise known as six minutes of random noise, piercing screams and James "Blood" Ulmer's unfocused "guitar" "playing." Brilliant idea, but it's not really music, and it's certainly not something your average hip-hop head will be able to handle. It's a line in the sand that very few will be able to cross.
But at least there's a band out there that's willing to draw those lines and proceed alone if no one steps forward to follow them. After all, in above-ground hip-hop these days, what passes for experimentation is Jay-Z stringing about four worthwhile songs over two separate discs, as he does on The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse. (The skills Jay-Z showed on last year's The Blueprint and Unplugged discs now look like an aberration instead of an absolute fact, in light of the complete lack of same on this year's R. Kelly team-up Best of Both Worlds and The Blueprint 2.) And "Water" isn't The Roots' only challenge to their listeners; there are a few other "are you in or are you out?" moments on Phrenology, such as the half-minute, full-speed "!!!!!!!" (a nod to Bad Brains and Minor Threat, of all things) and the rock-and-soul cover of Cody Chesnutt's "The Seed (2.0)," which features iconoclast Chesnutt on vocals and guitar. The rest of Phrenology, however, acts as a live-band companion piece to Missy Elliott's Under Construction (see Todd Levin's take on that below), celebrating the old school while enrolling in the new one. Cross that line. It'll be OK. I promise.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.