Phrenology is simultaneously the Roots’ most accessible and most experimental album, and it should be commended for that contradiction right off the bat. There are sung hooks everywhere to capitalize on the success of Things Fall Apart’s “You Got Me” (which nabbed them a grammy); they replace Erykah Badu with higher profile Nelly Furtado on “Sacrifice” and “The Seed (2.0)” remains their catchiest song, even a decade after the fact. Sure, some of the hooks don’t work: “Rock You” is exactly one inflection away from being a Queen song and Nelly Furtado seems wasted on “Sacrifice,” just shadowing Black Thought’s words in the choruses. And catchiness aside, the double entendre of “The Seed (2.0)” still isn’t an excuse for its stupidity, so ignore Cody ChestnuTT’s lyrics if you can. Finally, Black Thought repeats the title’s words of “Pussy Galore” over and over to beat you over the head about how sex is everywhere; I get it, man – what do you suggest we do about it? And I understand whyPhrenology has a lower reputation than the preceding Things Fall Apart or the forthcoming Game Theory; at a glance, it might sound like the Roots trying hard to appeal to a larger audience.
But listen to the beats! DJ Scratch throws in the odd drum sound into “Rock You” that first sounds like a dull thwack before turning into a sharp laser that becomes more and more prominent as the song builds, adding a fourth dimension to what would have been the album’s most standard affair. Meanwhile, it’s not the choruses of “Sacrifice” that matter, it’s those hooky intervals, with a fat bass harmonizing on every second note and the textures surrounding it – a descending keyboard riff, the twinkle from a triangle. Meanwhile, minor songs have major earworms: the horn hook throughout “Rolling With Heat” mostly saves it (Talib Kweli’s past his prime at this point) or the bass line of “Quill.” Even throwaway intro skit “Phrentrow” has a beautiful string line. But broadly speaking, ?uestlove is the MVP here – check out his fluid rolls on “Thought @ Work” or his subtle Latin-esque work on “Complexity.” Like last time, they close the album out with a spoken word track (“Something in the Way of Things (In Town)”), and though the words are less affecting, ?uestlove makes sure it’s never boring. (Still, it’s probably the worst song here.)
But I spoke briefly about Phrenology’s experimental side, and though the band is more enamored here with neo-soul than ever before or ever after, that’s too obvious (and hardly experimental in the world of hip-hop). A few exceptions aside (“The Session (Longest Posse Cut in History)” from Organix and “Return to Innocence Lost” from Things Fall Apart), Phrenology also has the most number of long players on any Roots album – three of these 15 proper songs are past the 7 minute mark and one of them reaches over 10 minutes. It’s on these songs where the genre-blurring is most evident. “Break You Off” pulls a beat switch a la “You Got Me,” but they add a string line to the action; the “song” portion of “Water” is over before the song’s even halfway through – and it disintegrates into six minutes of psychedelia afterwards. And hidden track “Rhymes and Ammo” has its own additional track, “Thirsty!”, all drums ‘n’ bass ‘n’ scratches. Add to these other elements like the rock riff that drives “The Seed (2.0)” and the existence of “!!!!!!!” (twenty-four seconds of drums, screams, whirlwinds, and hardcore punk yelling) and we have a band that’s successfully adapted to the postmodernity that the post-Kid A world demands. In other words, there are far, far worse places to go if you’re just now getting into hip-hop from a more rock-oriented background.