As The Roots have grown in stature in both the hip-hop community and in the larger international music scene, their sound has gotten leaner, more exacting, and much more direct. Starting with their third studio album Illadelph Halflife, a fine disc that still creaked under the weight of its nearly 80 minute running time, the Philadelphia-born and bred outfit has been paring things down. CD lengths got shorter and shorter, leading to How I Got Over, a lean, muscular 42-minute masterpiece.
It’s loud and clear in their finely tuned productions here, as well. The sonic fluff has been burned away in favor of streamlined tracks that are boiled down to the hip-hop essence: a spitting MC, a low slung bassline (courtesy of the band’s secret weapon, Owen Biddle), and a crackling drum beat. It brings to mind equally pared down and brilliant works like Midnight Marauders and Hell Hath No Fury. Little bits of keyboards or guitar or percussion color the path but otherwise, this is a steady pulse of rhythm moving forward like a car full speed on the freeway.
So far, much of the discussion surrounding How I Got Over is centered on it being The Roots’ “indie rock album”, but not without reason. There aren’t many other hip-hop producers willing to build a track around a sample of Joanna Newsom’s “The Book of Right-On” or updating the Monsters of Folk’s “Dear God” into a scintillating plea of faith rising above the din of modern day life. But to hear them separate those with the a title track that takes its sonic and lyrical inspiration from Curtis Mayfield and a floating bouncer like “Radio Daze” (which features fantastic guest turns by Philadelphia rappers P.O.R.N. and Dice Raw), it is apparent that The Roots haven’t lost sight of their vision of hip-hop’s future. They are providing another beacon that will help lead the genre into new and exciting directions.