For a crash course in the Roots, last year's Game Theory is ideal. Regardless of how heavily you weigh the genius of Phrenology or the folly of The Tipping Point, the troupe's Def Jam debut is a handy fusion of the one's dizzy daring and the other's poppy gloss. It's a knotty, furious and brutally honest album that just happens to be easy to swallow and hard to forget.
The Roots' live instrumentation has never been more vital, with ?uestlove's deeply weird rhythms (recently slobbered over by Deerhoof's Greg Saunier on PitchforkMedia.com) taking us quickly along from track to track while Black Thought empties his guts onto the table. He still spits about Philly streets with a mix of loyalty and rage, but reaches further to tackle massive targets. Game Theory's first track with vocals, the unnerving "False Media," creeps and shudders with his heavy intonations about America's dark history ("Pilgrims slaves Indian Mexican/It looks real fucked up for your next of kin") before he starts rapping in earnest.
Even on the bouncy title track that follows, Black Thought's barbs cut deeper than nearly any rapper's. By the time he finally slows down, the album is closing with "Can't Touch This," a loving tribute to hip-hop maestro Jay Dee (a.k.a. J Dilla), who passed away last year. In the intervening tracks are a flurry of potent guest spots, three of them from members of genre-splicing Philly upstarts Noveau Riche, led by longtime Roots collaborator Dice Raw. There's also a scene-stealing spot by Peedi Crack, who did the same on Ne-Yo's album, and strong work from Malik B, an auxiliary rapper for the Roots. These aren't grandstanding or half-assed appearances, but rather fierce turns that drive home what the song's about.
As downcast as it is lyrically, Game Theory might be the first Roots album since Things Fall Apart that you can listen to over and over without reaching for the skip button. With less of Phrenology's artiness and The Tipping Point's stabs at mainstream status, it's free to just be a glorious, reverberant Roots record.
The Roots at the Anaheim House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583; www.hob.com. Wed., 7:30 p.m. $35-40.
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