Near the end of the Roots' sixth album Phrenology is a song (the 10-minute-plus "Water") that underlines, italicizes and boldfaces the problem that has always plagued the group: It is too smart, too thoughtful, too much for hip-hop. Sliding over drummer ?uestlove and bassist Leon Hubbard's stuttering strut, head voice Black Thought holds an intervention for erstwhile group member Malik B, who appeared on all previous Roots albums but was noticeably absent here. "Yo, you need to walk straight, master your high/Son you missin' out on what's passing you by," Black Thought says. "I done seen the streets suck a lot of cats dry/But not you and I my nigga/We got to get/Come on, over/Over the water." Then the song follows Malik B on the downward spiral of drug addiction, listed in the credits as "The Abyss" and "The Drowning," otherwise known as six minutes of random noise, piercing screams and James "Blood" Ulmer's unfocused "guitar" "playing."
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Brilliant idea, but it's not really music, and it's certainly not something your average hip-hop head will be able to handle. It's a line in the sand that very few will be able to cross. But at least there's a band out there that's willing to draw those lines and proceed alone if no one steps forward to follow them. After all, in above-ground hip-hop these days, what passes for experimentation is Jay-Z stringing about four worthwhile songs over two separate discs, as he does on The Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse. (The skills Jay-Z showed on 2001's The Blueprint and Unplugged discs now look like an aberration instead of an absolute fact.)