The Roots

Phrenology (MCA)

As human beings evolve, we continue to realize our growing potential. The limitless possibilities allow for a sense of excitement as each generation grows from the next.

The soul of hip-hop is undergoing the same evolution. The exemplary album of the moment is the Roots' Phrenology. The group's stunning soul-hip-hop fusion, thankfully, in the midst of a God-awful year for the genre, has raised the standards once again. The album actually sounds like the group made sure everything is crisp, rather than crass.

On the track "!!!!!!!," the Roots slip into a Bad Brains-esque punk interlude, as if a new set of neurons is being utilized for the first time. The album continues to skip across musical genres like a tenement staircase -- blues, jazz, rock 'n' roll and so on. "Sacrifice" finds agile, hyperintelligent rapper Black Thought making what is quite possibly the first reference in hip-hop to a former member of Cream: "But if I go to heaven, would y'all know my name, or would it be the same for you like I was Eric Clapton, huh?" More alarmingly, the 11-minute "Water," a meditation on drug abuse, includes a cacophonous section of frenetic noise and haunting thunder by drummer ?uestlove and bassist Leon Hubbard.

While the album may stray from the traditional beaten path, it does not wander far from its hip-hop ancestry. On "Roll Call," Ursula Rucker recites the litany of hip-hop's predecessors, from Grandmaster Flash to Justin Warfield, like a schoolgirl listing the American presidents. The hidden tracks at album's end sound like something that would have been heard coming from a ghetto blaster on a south Philly street corner circa 1987 -- with Rahzel the Godfather of Noize uttering his staggering beatbox vocal distortions over a gyrating bass.

The land of utopian hip-hop ideology, where music, rhyme and creativity are equally important inhabitants, may be near impossible to reach. But as long as artists like the Roots continue to make albums like Phrenology, there will be a better chance of realizing hip-hop's full developmental potential.

 
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