The Roots’ How I Got Over proves once again that an innovative hip-hop band can swing and experiment with a boatload of musical forms, invite a bevy of acclaimed artists to lay down hooks and verses, and be seen as a commercial contender. The album is a hip-hop exodus into tight wordplay and organic funk that also dives into sweeping pop, rock, electronica and, of course, the band’s trademark jazz/soul experimentations.
If there was any concern that The Roots might switch concerns as a result of their Late Night with Jimmy Fallon gig, the album wholly dispels that with its stories of existential angst amongst folks looking to survive amidst hard times. Over also embraces a palette of performers from varied backgrounds, having rappers STS, Dice Raw, Truck North and Peedi Peedi alongside indie performers who don’t fit squarely within the hip-hop/soul canon, including the Dirty Projectors, Monsters of Folk, Patty Crash and Joanna Newsom. The Roots collaboration with such an array of artists speaks to their desire to explore musical forms and to who has comprised their audience throughout their career.
After a brief slow-jam intro with the Dirty Projectors vocalizing, “Walk Alone” sets the tone with Black Thought and guest rappers Dice Raw, Truck North and P.O.R.N. trading verse over an ominous bass line and austere piano chords. “Dear God 2.0” follows, with Monster of Folk personnel providing vocals over a ghostly affair that looks at the difficulties of maintaining faith.
How I Got Over’s title track swims in a sea of bass, drums, electric guitar and keyboards, feeling like a rap song transformed into a 70’s soul groove produced by the likes of Curtis Mayfield. Black Thought sings and rhymes with verve with lines like: “Out on the streets… first thing they teach you is not to give a fuck/That type of thinking, can get you nowhere/Someone has to care.”
In Roots world, male rap artists can maintain their swag, get down and bombastically rhyme about needing help and not get the soft, earthy-crunchy label.
“The Fire” is another ode to resilience and again, getting over, that’s retooled as a pop anthem with radio and TV appeal; here an altered John Legend handles reverb-vocals for the chorus after his old song “Again” is sampled on the previous track.
Going past the themes of perseverance, a few of the tracks call on listeners to get up and work wickedness on the dance floor. Case in point: “Web 20/20,” an electro-funk percolator that features Peedi, Truck North and Thought rapping relentlessly on a beat geared towards jangly limbs.
“Hustla,” the following and final cut, samples the sounds of a children’s party favor to create a stomping, hardcore ambler about parenting. Thought proclaims that his daughter’s ancestry has already wired her to be “more like a lawyer than a doctor, not a man watcher”: STS hopes on the chorus for a daughter and son to be a “hustla” as opposed to a “customer.” The Roots and friends once again provide a hip-hop ride to both high and low places.