The Roots, Phrenology

Christina Lee

By Christina Lee

on 01.04.12 in Reviews

The Roots
A purposeful commercial failure

After the Roots won their first Grammy in February 2000, the Philadelphia band dissected its formula for award-winning pop balladry — and nearly destroyed it — with Phrenology. As bait, the Roots cast plenty of hooks; “Thought @ Work” has the Roots revamping the Incredible Bongo Band’s incredibly recognizable “Apache,” and at the start of “Rolling with Heat,” ?uestlove’s introductory beats nods toward Orange Crush’s “Action.” Black Thought’s flow and guest vocalist Cody ChestnuTT’s crooning meld together perfectly in Phrenology‘s first single (the threadbare jam “The Seed 2.0″) and the resulting combination’s as complementary as chocolate and sea salt. But Phrenology‘s strongest cuts are its left turns, acts of defiance against both hip-hop and R&B conventions. “Rock You” has Black Thought rocking not to a crisp boom-bap beat, but what sounds like an endless locker slam, punctuated by whizzing, bouncing racquetballs. Interlude “!!!!!!!” throws a punked-out fit. And with three flicks of a lighter, the 10-minute “Water” slips into a murky wilderness anchored only by a throbbing heartbeat before taking a nosedive into shrieking chaos. Because of these cross-genre stabs, Phrenology was a commercial failure compared to Billboard 200 contender Things Fall Apart, which, in some ways, is what the Roots wanted. After all, as ChestnuTT sings in “The Seed 2.0″: “If I drop my baby girl tonight/ I’ma name her Rock ‘N’ Roll.”