September 7, 2006

Hip-Hop, Reinvented Yet Again

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Game theory is the new fashion among economists and political scientists; a logical/mathematical practice that reduces everything people do to, as the name implies, a game. Extremists of this theory describe us all as players, operating on a set of rules and goals, but we really become more like game pieces, manipulated by a metaphysical structure that there is no escape from. One is reminded of the hero of Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, who destroys himself in his obsession to reduce all of existence to numbers. It is a bleak outlook that is all the more disturbing for its correspondence with contemporary politics, with cynical leaders manipulating people like pawns in the sick game that is the global economy.
There are, however, different kinds of theorists, those who have fought throughout history against the suppression of human self-determination: musicians. From John Cage to Charlie Parker to the Sex Pistols, the musicians of our age have celebrated all that is irrational, chaotic, and subjective in human life. It is in this tradition that the Roots’ Game Theory falls, acknowledging but refusing to accept the depraved philosophy of neoconservative politics, and it is here that the Roots have finally lived up to their reputation.
On Things Fall Apart, their first significant recording, the Roots admitted that their audience was largely limited to, in Common’s words, “coffeehouse chicks and white dudes.” Their work has long been extolled as “alternative” or “intelligent” hip-hop — foolish descriptions for their implicit assertion that Afrika Bambaataa and Kool G Rap were mainstream, or Biggie and Tupac not intelligent — but the Roots, unlike their more inventive contemporaries Mos Def and Talib Kweli, often drifted into stereotypical and elitist territory. College boys praised their instrumental abilities — “They’re a hip-hop band!” cried a million stoners in unison — ignorant of a fact that hip-hop fans have understood since 1979: simulated grooves, whether programmed or sampled, sound way better than real ones.
With the aforementioned Things, and the subsequent Phrenology, the Roots made bids for both commercial acceptance and avant-garde credibility, simultaneously aping Timbaland’s trendsetting beats and featuring guest vocals from legendary abstract poet Amiri Baraka. This new approach led them to far more exciting, if less coherent places than they had been in the past, but with Game Theory the Roots have assimilated the reckless experimentation of Phrenology into a whole musical and conceptual philosophy, compelled by the death of friend and collaborator J Dilla, permanent and unjustified wars, Hurricane Katrina, and rampant media corruption to push themselves harder and further.
The cover of Game Theory announces the themes of the album: etched in charcoal across a page of newsprint is a game of hangman, a game with significant political and economic significance. On the first track, “False Media,” the symbolism of the image is translated into words by lead MC Black Thought: “America’s lost somewhere inside of Littleton/ Eleven million children are on Ritalin/ That’s why I don’t rhyme for the sake of riddlin’/ False media/ We don’t need it do we?” The track samples Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype,” making the point all the more urgent: almost twenty years after that classic media critique hit the charts, little has changed.
The title track points to a stylistic and emotional touchstone for the album: the beautifully strained voice of Sly Stone introduces the track, mumbling, “This is a game/ I’m your specimen.” Stone underwent a transformation in 1971 like that of the Roots from their previous two albums to this one, when, after years of exuberant crossover hits, he released the frightening There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Riot remains one of the most visionary recordings in popular music—and one of the bleakest. Drummer/producer ?uestlove has cited the album as a significant influence, along with Radiohead’s latter work, sampled and eclipsed on “Atonement.” The paranoid “Livin’ in a New World” likewise takes the aesthetic of contemporary post-punk rock bands to a more meaningful place than Interpol or any of their fellow losers have ever been.
“In the Music” and “Here I Come” find the Roots sounding angrier and harder—and more “hip-hop”—than they ever have, with typically excellent drumming from ?uestlove, inventive vamps from keyboardist Kamal that have finally progressed beyond the “mellow,” jazzy vibe that he has driven into the ground since Organix, and guitar from new member Captain Kirk. These, as well as the title track, also feature the return of Malik B, an original member whose MC’ing has been absent from the Roots’ work since his drug problem overtook his musical career in the late nineties.
The back cover of Game Theory shows the Roots nattily dressed as capitalists, playing a game of cards, but the work they do inside could hardly be further from this satirical image. Here the Roots truly confront their time like few of their contemporaries in popular music are doing. In a Patior Act world in which “global gangsters” take charge, where you have to “watch who you trust in,” where “high powered lenses” chart our movements, where “they hear you when you’re whispering,” the Roots have refused to keep quiet.