Write & Wrong
I have yet to hear this album which should preclude me from commenting on it's reviews but this one is very well written. I've just encountered Chinen's writing in the past few months and it's wonderful.
*Well said but he used to. Rewind to DYWM for evidence. Delivery wise, BT, may be suffering from a "professional tedium" to borrow from Ben Ratliff's review of Kenny Garrett's Beyond the Wall or "doing something very familiar almost too well."
“Game Theory” (Def Jam)
Dystopia meets dyspepsia on “Game Theory,” the grim new release by the Roots, the Philadelphia hip-hop band. Its sound is ominous, its tone outraged. As for the subject matter, look no further than the lead single, “Don’t Feel Right,” in which Black Thought, the group’s lyricist and mouthpiece, offers a helpful digest of themes: “Sex, drugs, murder, politics and religion.”
Another rapper might welcome those five things like so many guests at a party. But Black Thought, a k a Tariq Trotter, suggests that they’re all desperate forms of currency, part of the hustle. Then he follows up with a warning: “Watch who you put all your trust in/Worldwide we coincide with who’s suffering.” (You may as well add foreign policy to that list of topics, along with urban blight, police corruption and government surveillance.)
The Roots have built a reputation for social critique over their decade-plus career, and their core audience will be prepared for such an onslaught. But “Game Theory,” the group’s first album on Def Jam Recordings, takes aim at a broader public. And it strives to evoke a specific set of hip-hop values: not the charismatic cool of Jay-Z, Def Jam’s president, but the incisive fury of Public Enemy, one of the label’s early successes.
That imperative suits Black Thought as barking suits a watchdog; he sounds more focused than he did on the Roots’ last album, “The Tipping Point,” and more engaged than on the one before it, “Phrenology.” But because he’s not the kind of rapper to modulate his emotional pitch, his intensity can level off into monotony.*
It’s generally a welcome intervention when someone — like the returning Roots alumnus Malik B., or the North Philly rapper Peedi Peedi — briefly takes the lead.
The person who really keeps things moving is ?uestlove, a k a Ahmir Thompson, who leads the Roots from behind his drums, and takes the lead in conceiving and producing their albums. Spurring on a group that pointedly includes a guitarist, Kirk Douglas (a k a Captain Kirk), ?uestlove infuses “Game Theory” with a hard sonic logic, so that the music often sounds as tough as the lyrics. (Here too Public Enemy is a useful reference; its anthem “Don’t Believe the Hype” even makes a stealth appearance, in sampled form.)
Where Black Thought hunkers down, ?uestlove stretches out, sometimes to the point of overreaching: on “Atonement” he misguidedly layers a vocal chorus by Jack Davey over a sample of Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army?” But his sequencing of the album is terse and occasionally gripping, as when “Don’t Feel Right” yields to the stark menace of “In the Music.” And he inserts a few gratifying allusions to earlier, breezier Roots grooves, with neo-soul vocals and splashes of Fender Rhodes piano.
Nostalgia takes a personal edge on the closer, “Can’t Stop This,” which was overseen by the producer J Dilla before his death early this year. Stuffed with posthumous testimonials, the track feels overlong. But somehow it’s only fitting that this album should end with a eulogy. NATE CHINEN