Even if it resembles a sort of fly-with-a-bazooka overkill, John McWhorter’s take on the politics of Philadelphia hip hop ensemble The Roots is very much worth reading. I only wish he would have emphasized a little more the positive that he gestures at a few times – that is, that, yes, The Roots’ social analysis wildly overshoots its factual basis, but the pleasures to be had in their music are so intense that it barely matters. It’s one of the funny things about The Roots. They are iconic in hip hop circles for their political seriousness, but what they really, really excel at is a sort of wide-ranging hip hop formalism – smart, accurate rhymes, killer flow, subtle (yet juicy) beats, beautiful choruses, deft interweaving of rap verses with rock and r&b song structures and instruments, and great scratchy samples. My favorite example of this – their formalism virtually absorbing their message – is Don’t Say Nuthin’ from their brilliant 2004 album The Tipping Point. The song boils down to a gorgeous chorus whose lyrics are so beside the point they aren’t even really sung – they’re moaned. Or check out the mind-bending, bongo-driven, badgering flow, the amazing 70s-tinged chorus, and the fabulous kitchen-sink arrangement, of Thought @ Work from Phrenology (2002). This is just about the most rousing music I can think of, in any genre.
The newest Roots album, Rising Down, provides more examples of what McWhorter and I are both talking about. I’ll offer one: Criminal. It’s a series of versus by Black Thought and guest rappers Truck and Saigon that, as McWhorter laments, minimize the admitted criminality of individual men and focuses instead on, you know, the system – “crooked-ass cops” and so on. Indeed, that minimizing is what the song’s about. But what the song’s really about, as you listen to it, is the trademark flow of the verses and the periodic reentry of that…incredible… chorus. Smart, wry, bouncy. Beautiful.