The Roots' New Album: Heavy But No Downer

The innovative Philly hip-hop crew rails against the war on terror and salutes J Dilla on their darkest release yet

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After nearly fourteen years of making challenging, socially conscious hip-hop, should the Roots have to get defensive about their indie cred? Well, maybe, since the Philly crew signed their upcoming ninth album Game Theory (due August 29th) to Jay-Z's radio-friendly Def Jam label.

"We definitely knew going in that people were going to read this merger as a sign of us really about to cash in," says band leader ?uestlove. "Because of our past association with [Jay-Z], people could have easily thought, 'OK, these guys are about to be all on this yacht, pouring champagne on people.' "

But there's no Dom or Diddy on Game Theory. First off, the lead single, "Don't Feel Right," is available for free download on the band's MySpace page -- how's that for not selling out? Second, the album is dark. The lyrics touch on topics ranging from the war in Iraq to violence in music. On the single, Black Thought rhymes over the Roots' signature lush instrumentation about "the unseen hand that holds trouble" and how "the struggle ain't right in your face, it's more subtle." On "False Media," he rhymes about the environment and the "war on terror": "We gon' pimp the shit out of nature/. . . I'm gonna make you feel a little bit safer/Because it ain't over/See that's how we get your fear to control you."

"In this day and age, I'm kind of noticing that nobody in urban music really has the balls to just stop partying for one second," says ?uestlove. "I mean, partying is good and whatnot, and it's cool to get down, but I really think that 2006 called for a very serious record. This ain't the Debbie Downer record, or the political, save-the-world record, but this is definitely not the MC-based, battle-themed album that the Roots have been known for. This is our most serious record to date."

The album's also got its share of dance-floor numbers. The frantic "Here I Come" -- featuring Dice Raw, who shone on the Roots' sophomore album, Do You Want More?!!!??! -- has a retro feel, like a sweaty, back-bending B-boy dance. And "Clocks With No Arms" is a cool jazz/hip-hop mash-up reminiscent of their earlier work with lyrics that reflect their heavier mind-set. "The block hot with the law and ain't too many choices," spits Black Thought. "What I do is for y'all 'cause ain't too many voices left."

"The hip-hop that's allowed to reach the mainstream is only one certain type of hip-hop, and there's the danger of the minstrelsy of it," says ?uestlove. "The more one-dimensional, character-driven hip-hop is what seems to be driving the big bucks -- because people want a show. Like, Eminem's the crazy white-trash man who hates his mommy; 50 Cent got shot nine times; Jay-Z is a bad drug dealer gone good. And the problem is: Who is Black Thought? Chuck D once said, 'Hip-hop is black America's CNN' -- but now it's turned into black America's UPN . . . I'm not going to be competing with Yung Joc or 'Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It.' "

Fittingly, then, Game Theory closes with the eight-minute "Can't Stop," a tribute to J Dilla (a.k.a. Jay Dee), "the last of the hip-hop-loving MCs." In a shock to the hip-hop community, the seminal Detroit producer and MC, who achieved cult status working with A Tribe Called Quest, Common and D'Angelo, died this February from lupus. Towards the end of his life, while he quietly battled his illness, J Dilla completed two solo albums from his hospital bed.

"He was definitely one of my music heroes," ?uestlove says of J Dilla. "The song is an homage to those who sacrificed their lives for hip-hop."

Additional reporting by Charley Rogulewski