Co-headlining the Smokin' Grooves tour with OutKast and Lauryn Hill was supposed to be a coming-out party for Philadelphia hip-hop kings the Roots' new album, Phrenology. The follow-up to 1999's multi-platinum Things Fall Apart was expected in stores ahead of the tour, but the Roots are still not yet ready to release the album, which is now tentatively set for October.
In fact, the band is still playing around with the songs, many of which are two to three years old. "We've worked with Nelly Furtado, Amir Baraka, James Blood Ulmer and Talib Kweli on this record," says Roots drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson from a tour stop in Chicago. "We did some shit with D'Angelo that I don't know if it's going to wind up on the finished album. And we're talking to Cee-Lo about doing just one more song."
The Roots have long been known to work at their own pace, needing to heed the schedules and motivations of the band's multiple voices and personalities: ?uestlove, frontman Black Thought, bassist Hub, keyboardist/guitarist Kamal, percussionist Scratch and, until recently, rapper Malik B., who left the group during the recording of Phrenology amid tense circumstances.
?uestlove -- who also has a busy career as a songwriter, producer and session man for everyone from D'Angelo to Common to Erykah Badu -- says that for the first time the Roots are directly addressing personal topics in their songs. The eleven-minute "Water," for example, is an aural walk through hell. "It's probably our most sprawling song to date," he says. "If anything, that's our Fleetwood Mac Rumours. Our creme de la creme. Our open letter to Malik B. It's very painful to listen to -- we've never done anything that personal, ever."
According to ?uestlove, Phrenology is also the Roots' most aggressive album. The band has welcomed a rock guitarist, Ben Kenney, into the fold, and ?uestlove himself has been delving further into the realm of drum machines, searching for the elusive perfect beat. "We're doing shit that we haven't done before," he says, "and, at the end of the day, that's what being an artist is all about."