“You gotta believe, I think like a artist/ But my bills through the roof can’t do numbers like the Roots.” That was Jay-Z, freestyling over the beat from 50 Cent’s “If I Can’t,” on 2003’s The S. Carter Collection, a great mixtape released to promote a line of Reebok sneakers. Jay had made points like that one before — explaining, over and over, that the pressures of stardom kept him from expressing his true depth. It’s the same point that Jay made on The Black Album a few months later, when he claimed that if skills sold, truth be told, he’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli. But I always wondered about the specificity of that Roots namecheck — a beautiful little backhanded compliment from arguably the world’s biggest rap star.
Jay-Z knew the Roots. When Jay made his MTV Unplugged special in 2001, he picked the Roots as his backing band. Apparently, the Roots didn’t take too much umbridge at that line. When Jay played his not-really-a-farewell farewell show at Madison Square Garden later that year, the Roots returned to backing-band duty, and they’ve played that role for Jay a few times in the years since. Later on, when Jay became president of Def Jam, he signed the Roots. Jay has always esteemed the Roots, and he’s never been scared to say it. But that day in 2003, Jay namechecked the Roots as a kind of cautionary tale — an example of what happens when artistry and commerce diverge. Jay-Z, a great artist, thought of himself as a commerce guy, and he thought of the Roots as the other thing.
That line had context. About six months before Jay dropped that S. Carter Collection mixtape, the Roots cashed in whatever goodwill they’d accrued to make Phrenology, a sprawling 70-minute opus that largely ditched the band’s established sound and pulled them in all sorts of wiggy directions. Phrenology was the Roots branching out, showing the world what they could do. The album wasn’t an outright flop; a few months after Jay released that mixtape, Phrenology limped its way to gold-record status. But Phrenology didn’t do what the Roots or their label wanted. If you had bills through the roof, you couldn’t do numbers like the Roots.
The Roots had only just started to do numbers. In 2002, the Philadelphia band was nearly a decade removed from the release of Organix, the indie debut that they’d recorded in London. That album got the Roots signed to Geffen. The Roots got attention for being a full-on band rather than a rappers-plus-turntables group, and their live show blew minds. Critics loved the Roots, partly for the ways that they diverged from ’90s rap orthodoxy. But the band members were frustrated because they didn’t think the rap community took them seriously or treated them as peers. Eventually, the Roots found their own community, and that made all the difference.
By the time the Roots released their landmark Things Fall Apart in 1999, the band was at the center of a thriving circle of artists who dubbed themselves the Soulquarians. Post-Native Tongues rappers like Common, Talib Kweli, and the man now known as Yasiin Bey found common ground with the Roots. So did rap-conversant R&B singers like D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and Jill Scott. These artists became their own thriving subculture. D’Angelo and Badu became stars, and both of them collaborated heavily with Roots drummer and bandleader Questlove. So did Common, who managed to push his way to something resembling stardom once he linked up with the Soulquarians. Many of those allies contributed to Things Fall Apart, the album that still stands as the deepest, richest document of what the Roots could do. On the strength of the Roots’ growing cachet and the hit Erykah Badu collab “You Got Me,” Thing Fall Apart went gold and, years later, platinum. The Roots had built up some cultural capital. With Phrenology, they spent it.
Even after the success of Things Fall Apart, the Roots found themselves in some level of stress and disarray. The band had shed members like rappers Dice Raw and the late Malik B and human-beatbox wizard Rahzel. Scott Storch, the Roots’ long-gone original keyboardist, was already making a name for himself as a producer of hugely successful pop hits. The disorder wouldn’t stop with Phrenology, either; shortly after the album’s release, guitarist Ben Kenney, who’d only just joined up, would leave the Roots to join Incubus — probably a sound financial decision on Kenney’s part.
Pared down to a tighter lineup, with just one rapper in the form of the masterful technician Black Thought, the Roots attempted to distance themselves from the neo-soul zeitgeist that they’d helped to create. Instead, they wanted Phrenology to showcase something closer to the anything-goes intensity of their live show. The Roots settled in for more than two years of jam sessions at New York’s Electric Lady Studios, and the album slowly began to take shape. You can hear them striving for something more visceral in the bare-bones stomp of “Rock You,” the album’s first proper song. That song’s hook is about as simple as it gets. It’s just Black Thought repeating the line “we will rock you” over and over. Then, as if to prove Black Thought right, the Roots launch directly into “!!!!!!!,” a frantic 24-second burst of Bad Brains-style hardcore.
“!!!!!!!” isn’t a great hardcore song or anything, but it’s a statement of intent: For the Roots, nothing is off the table. Over the rest of the album, the Roots delve into guttural funk, chaotic free-jazz skree, incendiary spoken-word poetry, and hammering hip-house. The album can make for a fractured, disorienting listen, but it plays that way for a reason. The Roots named Phrenology after the disgraced fake science of racial essentialism — the idea that Black people are somehow dumber or weaker than white people, as determined by bullshit like head shape. In casting their net wide, the Roots claimed all these different styles as Black music — which, after all, is what they are.
Some of the tracks on Phrenology are among the best in the Roots’ deep catalog. For many years, Black Thought had a rep as a technically impeccable rapper without much personality, but his upright dependability has eventually come to look like its own kind of star power, and “Thought @ Work” is one of the all-time great documents of that power at work. The three-part, 10-minute epic “Water” is an expressive love letter to departed bandmate Malik B, whose addiction issues were already unravelling his life. The thumping house anthem “Thirsty!,” a hidden track when the album first came out, just bangs hard. And the sprawl of Phrenology is a powerful statement in its own right. The album might not hang together as well as Things Fall Apart, but its messiness is a feature, not a bug.
Unfortunately, that messiness doesn’t extend to the lead single. “Break You Off,” a collaboration with the rising neo-soul singer Musiq Soulchild, feels like a cheap attempt to recapture what the Roots had with “You Got Me,” right down to the drum-‘n’-bass break at the end of the track. “Break You Off” isn’t a bad song, but it’s a whole lot more staid and safe than the rest of the album. It doesn’t have the emotive storytelling of “You Got Me,” and it stands as a prime example of why Black Thought shouldn’t attempt loverman pop-rap. “Break You Off” is the only Hot 100 hit on Phrenology, and it only made it to #99.
But if second single “The Seed (2.0)” didn’t make the charts, it still stands as one of the best songs that the Roots ever recorded. Earlier in 2002, the mercurial Los Angeles musician Cody ChesnuTT had come out with The Headphone Masterpiece, a sprawling self-released double CD that he’d recorded at home on a four-track in his bedroom. The Roots brought ChesnuTT in to record a new version of his song “The Seed,” adding their own crisp precision and a couple of locked-in Black Thought verses. “The Seed (2.0)” is really more of a Cody ChesnuTT track than a Roots one, but the Roots gave ChesnuTT’s song the clarity and force that it needed. “The Seed (2.0)” was a bigger hit abroad than at home — #2 in Denmark! — but it now sits right behind “You Got Me” on the list of the Roots’ most-streamed songs. Maybe people just needed some time to catch up.
The summer after Phrenology came out, I saw the Roots headline Baltimore’s AFRAM Festival, a huge free show dedicated to Black artists. I’ve been to a lot of Roots shows over the years. I’ve seen them at clubs, college auditoriums, outdoor festival stages, huge theaters. They’ve always been great, and they’ve always left crowds’ heads spinning. But I’ve never seen band and crowd feed off of each other the way they did that night. Tens of thousands of people must’ve come out to AFRAM, and when Cody ChesnuTT stepped onstage to sing “The Seed (2.0),” all of us must’ve levitated. That night, it didn’t matter how many copies Phrenology might’ve sold. Some things are bigger than numbers.