It’s obvious from the first notes of How I Got Over that the Roots are not your typical hip-hop group. Opening track “A Piece of Light” features the three ladies of Dirty Projectors overlaying staccato “doo”s and “dah”s above wavering jazz chords and, eventually, a slow boom-bap groove from drummer ?uestlove.
How I Got Over
This curious tiptoer of a track hardly opens the album with a bang. Rather, Over slithers into listeners’ eardrums slowly, mysteriously, coiling round and not releasing its audience until the final AutoTuned baby wail of Major Lazer-sampling “Hustla.” But then again, who would expect any less of the eclectic and always-pioneering Legendary Roots Crew?
Over is the Roots’ first studio album since taking up residence on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.” The band proved itself on the show, going beyond simply supporting Fallon to anchor and sometimes star in jokes and bits like “Freestylin’ With The Roots.” But a move to the late-night circuit seems suspiciously like settling down, which would spell disaster for a group so inherently unsettling.
The thing is, the Roots at their best are deep, cynical, even frightening. And it’s not just the lyrics — the creeping ascending bassline of Game Theory’s “In The Music,” ?uestlove’s threateningly methodic drumming of Rising Down’s “The Show” — nothing on Over even comes close to the dark, deep and dense atmosphere this group can create.
Instead, for their ninth studio album the Roots opted for positivity with a vague sense of unease. It’s subtle, and markedly different from its immediate predecessors, but it’s the perfect conclusion.
Over’s first five tracks smoothly transition for an uninterrupted flow right into first single “How I Got Over.” These songs epitomize the Roots’ new stance: “Walk Alone,” anchored by mournful soul wailing and piano, is less menacing, more accepting of its fate, as the chorus admits: “I always been on my own, ever since the day I was born / So I don’t mind walking alone.”
Likewise, album highlight “Dear God 2.0” adds to a poignant plea by supergroup Monsters of Folk a conflicting sense of urgency and helplessness. After the first verse’s marching list of world woes, rapper Black Thought gets personal about his job and life in a depressive present-tense prelude to a future-leaning album.
“How I Got Over” is the first instant upper on Over — and really, the first Roots mood-raiser in a long time. Its upbeat style and poppy chorus are a little jarring at first, but its stark buoyancy balances Over’s overall mood, and introduces the much more hopeful second half.
“Even the three-legged dog got three good legs to lose,” Phonte reminds us on “The Day,” a smile-through-the-tears ode to the daily grind, and it seems to be the theme of the album. Past back-to-back John Legend collaborations “Doin’ It Again” and “The Fire,” on into playful closer “Web 20/20,” the Roots sound like a band trapped on a desert island but enjoying the sun.
The Roots have cited the Obama message as a partial influencer for the new album, and it shows — not just the hope-and-change mantra, but the confusion and contradiction that come with. Of course, Over is still a suicide letter compared to the typical happy-go-lucky pop song. But what makes it great is that even in looking forward, it still considers the trauma of the past.
And in doing so, the album manages to stay far from the too-settled realm foreboded by its Fallon day job (or late-night job, as it were). But what’s more, it provides a fuller commentary on what it means to be living in America in the Obama age, where the reality of hope and change isn’t so easy.
With How I Got Over, the Roots have created something that stands out not only in their extensive repertoire but also in terms of the broader American outlook today. It captures the atmosphere of the late ’00s but also pinpoints a distinct — and rarely pinpointed — feeling of yin-yang optimism. Not so bad for a late-night house band.