I Would Call It Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Roots’ Phrenology at 20

Looking back on the Philly crew’s most experimental album

The Roots Phrenology, MCA Records 2002

I loved The Roots’ Phrenology unreservedly in 2002. Why shouldn’t I? 

No one was making music like Philly’s heroes, whom I’d previously caught on a triple bill betwixt Santana and Dave Matthews Band. Not even their fellow Soulquarians like ultra-groove traditionalist D’Angelo, his fellow soul compatriot Erykah Badu, who co-owned the group’s outstanding lone hit “You Got Me,” or their much clumsier cosmic lieutenant Common. At the time, only OutKast and Missy Elliott were proffering more futuristic hip-hop, though the correct word for The Roots was forward-thinking.

Black Thought and Questlove on the cover of the Summer 2002 issue of The Fader (Image: The Fader)

As the novelty of them being a (great) band wore off, they stopped worrying about low-key jazz ostinatos and pointed rhetoric like the hilarious but indignant video for their 1996 meta-diatribe “What They Do.” The world class and now world famous Questlove didn’t have to drum on every song; they grew as comfortable with sampling Schoolly D’s “Saturday Night” as they did affixing a live drum’n’bass coda to the aforementioned hit. With its powerful album cover and legs-stretching musical sensibilities, Things Fall Apart was the group’s best album yet in 1999, though unbeknownst to many it’s been surpassed several times over. Phrenology was the first of more albums than you remember to set the bar higher.

Musically, I couldn’t have asked for more from these virtuosos, starting with the rock songs. “Rock You” isn’t strictly what it promises, though it’s certainly very Beastie Boys of it to interrupt a ponderous, 18-second album intro with its militant, one-note propulsion, and you bet that live they interpolated it into Queen’s even more warlike “We Will Rock You.” That opening salvo in turn is interrupted by the even more Beasties-esque “!!!!!!!!,” a 24-second hardcore blast that remains my favorite thing on the album and channels Minor Threat more than Bad Brains. Guru’s Jazzmatazz this was not. 

 

VIDEO: The Roots feat. Musiq “Break You Off”

Then there’s the album’s biggest hit, not the expensive, oboe-laden R&B epic “Break You Off” but the alt-radio smash “The Seed (2.0),” which beefed up local DIY genius Cody ChesnuTT’s titular tune into something truly anthemic, hip-hop, rock ‘n’ roll, and their horniest non-Fall Out Boy-related song to date (“I push my seed in her bush for life”) all at once.

Touring with Dave Matthews Band did not portend these, or the ten-minute, multi-movement “Water,” which rides Hub’s bubbling-potion bass groove and slappy rhythm attack until the tune dissolves into, well, another six minutes of liquid jungle bricolage. Inspired by OutKast’s “B.O.B.” perhaps, “Break You Off” even takes an obvious bid for R&B radio off the map for a few minutes of extended jamming. The more traditional tunes each kick in for their respective four minutes as well: the gorgeous, aqueous “Sacrifice,” the ominous trudge of “Quills” with a pretty, harmonized chorus that occasionally comes into view, the obligatory “Apache” remake “Thought @ Work.” You’ll remember Jill Scott’s unusually high register on “Complexity” and the title chants on “Water” and “Pussy Galore” whether you necessarily love them or not. They sure sprawl, especially on the bonus cuts, one featuring Amiri Baraka and one making rave music from their talented beatboxer Scratch, but The Roots are hardly the hookless rebels wandering off into the unknown that they’re made out to be.

 

VIDEO: The Roots feat. Cody ChesnuTT “The Seed (2.0)”

What they may have been a little, in retrospect, are the scolds that the Jurassic 5s of the era connected with. Phrenology, named for an archaic racist pseudoscience, continued a streak of increasingly hard political makeovers (excepting the kinda lost The Tipping Point, which still featured underrated bops like “Boom!”) that they got the hang of much better when Jay-Z signed them to Def Jam: Game Theory and Rising Down remaining their most dissonant, bracing listens and maybe their best. The booming music showed, rather than told, how dark and abrasive their mood was. 

By contrast, Phrenology was a bit lightweight and subjects like the anti-sex “Pussy Galore,” the minute-long interlude of shouting out the old school, and “Water,” a frustrated lament for Black Thought’s former partner-in-mic Malik B and his drug addiction even if it came from a place of love, even the pay-your-dues-believe-in-yourself “Sacrifice,” all sound a bit lecturing in 2022. You end up wishing for more Bad Brains and less Amiri Baraka; what Jay-Z didn’t have over Black Thought wasn’t hooks, really, it was ease.

Phrenology captures a great period in an outstanding, undervalued career that was already doing more than plenty of things daringly and right. But imagine if, start to finish, it upheld that promise to rock you.

 

 You May Also Like

Ted Miller

Ted Miller is trying to collect the head of every Guns ‘n Roses’ guitarist for his rec room. He currently has three.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *