The Roots are without a doubt the best band to ever work in late night television. That, after 20 years as a band they chose to sign a contract to become the house band for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon is just a little bit surprising. Their star has been on the proverbial rise in the past several years, and given their ever-increasing popularity, it’d make sense if they just kept at it and continued the recording and touring cycle they’ve done for so long already. Of course given the challenges of working in the music industry these days, and that most everyone in the band has families they should be spending time with, agreeing to a job that has decent hours, a steady paycheck and doesn’t require travel must seem like a good idea. When they did agree to work in late night, they also said that they were done writing and recording new albums as their entire focus would be on the TV show. It turns out they lied to some degree, and in their spare time were able to piece together a new record that due to a number of different issues was delayed multiple times in the last year. At long last, “How I Got Over” is finally out this week, and if you know The Roots, chances are you know what you’re in for.
The surprises on “How I Got Over” come in the form of guest artists playing with The Roots this time around. While they are very much a band (or more of a collective, given their large numbers) that plays their own instruments, The Roots have rarely worked with other actual bands on their albums. Instead, because their songs are largely hip hop in nature, you get a number of rappers and R&B stars making guest appearances. This time around, perhaps informed by some of the groups they’ve seen perform on “Late Night”, they’re diversifying a bit more than usual and incorporating some notable indie artists into their songs. Opening track “A Peace of Light” features guest vocals by Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian and Haley Dekle of Dirty Projectors. The Roots collaborate a little with Monsters of Folk (or more likely just Yim Yames) to give the song “Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)” a little hip hop edge in what becomes “Dear God 2.0”. They also do a track with Joanna Newsom, which samples her song “Book of Right-On” along with new vocals to become simply “Right On”. Aside from those rather interesting guests, there’s also some more familiar faces for Roots fans in the form of Dice Raw, Phonte, P.O.R.N. and the great John Legend.
In terms of pure musical interest, long-time fans of The Roots will feel pretty comfortable with how this record sounds. It’s very much in line stylistically with their last couple albums “Game Theory” and “Rising Down”, though with a couple notable exceptions. First and foremost, “How I Got Over” is very much the sort of record that you want to sit down with and listen to from start to finish. The track sequencing is incredibly important in this case, though if you happen to stumble upon a song from the album while on shuffle it probably won’t feel too out of place. Really what might bother some people is how long it takes for things to really get going and settle into a groove. The first few tracks may be slow, but they’re also dark and immensely intriguing. Listened to in order, they blend into one another effortlessly and from the “do do do” harmonies provided by the ladies of Dirty Projectors through the piano-and-drums over hip hop of “Radio Daze” there’s some intensely deep and smartly composed moments along the way. The second half of the album also boasts some serious highlights as well, and the string of tracks from Joanna Newsom’s “Right On” through the seriously hard-hitting hip hop of “Web 20/20” feels particularly brilliant. Sandwiched in between those are two songs in a row with John Legend which are exactly as great as they need to be. Really there’s not a weak track on the album, and special credit goes to the two main players in The Roots, Questlove and Black Thought (Tariq) for their work both performing and producing the record. Tariq’s extremely smart, if occasionally politically motivated rhymes and Questlove’s rock-solid drumming make for the absolute best things about this album, whether guests are involved or not. The Roots refuse to be outshined on their own record.
Whatever the actual reason(s) for the multiple delays might have been, “How I Got Over” almost seems worth the wait. It may not be the band’s best album, nor their easiest to like, but it’s still highly interesting and holds firm their reputation of being one of the best hip hop acts out there today. Whether or not there will be another record beyond this one is still a huge question mark given their late night duties, but if this is the last original material we’ll hear from The Roots, they’re going out on a great note. Those completely averse to hip hop probably won’t find much if anything to like here, but for the indie kids who haven’t heard a Roots album before, this is as good of a place as any to get started. Virtually all the collaborations turn out well, and it’s particularly nice to hear a Joanna Newsom or a Yim Yames popping up between the smartly written rhymes. Hopefully there will be more of that in the future. For the time being, it’d be a good idea to buy a copy of “How I Got Over”, and to witness the incredible skills of The Roots, watch them weeknights on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Not only do they have the right entrance song for every guest (they had Heidi Klum on the other day and did a play on The Go Go’s “Our Lips Are Sealed”, renaming it “Her Lips Are Seal’s”), but every now and then they’ll improvise songs about audience members using various musical styles. It is nothing short of incredible, and proof positive that not only are The Roots the best band in late night, but also one of the best bands working today.