The Roots Game Theory

[Def Jam; 2006]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: hip-hop band
Others: Jurassic 5, Handsome Boy Modeling School, Lyrics Born

It's been a long time ”” seven years, exactly ”” since The Roots released Things Fall Apart. This needs to be said, because that record has hung as a sort of looming specter over the band's subsequent two releases, Phrenology and The Tipping Point. Neither of these later two albums were bad, in any sense of the word ”” it's just that Things Fall Apart became such a phenomenon in the mainstream rap movement that The Roots' next efforts were a little underwhelming for most fans. A cornerstone record for the end of the '90s, Things Fall Apart garnered widespread acclaim from the entire spectrum of music critics who praised the record for its social reflections, unique sound, and most of all, its accessibility to wide audiences. It was one of those archetypal albums that defines subgenres and shapes aesthetics throughout a wide range of popular culture, and neither of The Roots' two follow-ups were able to come anywhere close to making such a bold artistic statement.

But Game Theory does come close. Largely in reaction to the political trials and tribulations of the past few years, The Roots have refueled their energies and created a fiercer, rawer version of the tone and tenor that defined Things Fall Apart. Their sound on Game Theory is much, much sharper and angrier than it has ever been before ”” listen to the neurotic guitar line that forms the basis for the beat of "In The Music" or the slow and anguished slow-picked chords that linger throughout "Atonement." There's none of the laid-back quality that made Things Fall Apart such a widely-loved album, and the effects of The Roots' revamped sound are significant and striking, forming the impression of a group that has an urgent, important message to get out.

Equally matching this urgency of the album's beats is the added focus on social issues that helped give The Roots their name to begin with. "Don't Feel Right," the most fast-paced and possibly best of Game Theory's tracks ”” a perfect choice for the album's first single ”” has some of the best lyrics of the past few years, including gems like: "Remember back in the days when the kitchen had eggs/ And pancakes, thicken and greens and Kool Aid/ When the refrigerator's naked and the cupboard is bare/ People got to strip naked, 'Stick 'em up in the air.'" Or "False Media," another of the album's many standouts: "If I can't work and make it, I'll rob and take it/ Either that, or me and my children are starving and naked," or the chorus' blunt observation that the world "looks real fucked up for your next of kin." The Roots are pissed, and it's reflected in their music and lyrics like never before.

But beyond the outrage so clearly evident in the songs, Game Theory works simply because it is one of the most enjoyable and heartfelt records any band has made in a long time ”” and all this despite the album's constant outrage. Black Thought tears it up on "Long Time," one of rap's catchiest songs in recent memory; the title track is another fast and fierce anthem for the masses; "Can't Stop This," a tribute to the deceased rap producer Jay Dee, is touching without approaching overdone melodrama; Malik B is back in top form. The album is cohesive, with tracks blending together seamlessly, forming what is simply one of the best listening experiences any rap record has ever provided.

Missteps are few and far between. Despite the overwrought, almost Black Eyed Peas-sounding "Baby," as well as other small glitches that crop up in a few places, Game Theory is an undeniably strong record. It is an excellent album that has taken them seven long years to finally get to, but those are seven years that have been evidently well spent: After years of mediocrity and being, to some degree, marginalized ”” just when the world needed them ”” The Roots are back like never before.

1. Dilltastic Vol Won(derful)
2. False Media
3. Game Theory
4. Don't Feel Right
5. In The Music
6. Take It There
7. Baby
8. Here I Come
9. Long Time
10. Livin' In A New World
11. Clock With No Hands
12. Atonement
13. Can't Stop This