The legendary Roots crew has had a pretty damn unique career. I don't know of any other artist or group that has changed their sound and defied their previous classification with virtually each album. Aside from their first two "jazz rap" albums, the obscure Organix and the break out Do You Want More?!?!?, the proceeding albums have flipped the script. Even though you can never know what to expect from a Roots album (except that it will be good), Game Theory packs even more mystery as it's their first effort on Def Jam.
Game Theory proves to be no exception to the rule; it's unlike the rest of their albums and it's good, but I'd be lying if I only expected a "good" album from the Philadelphia band. The ever-talkative Roots drummer and visionary ?uestlove has been saying for months that this was their "darkest" record to date. In the past, ?eusto has made claims about the sound of an upcoming album, only for it to be received in a totally different way. This time around, the funky drummer hit the nail on the head. This is their darkest record, both musically and topically.
It isn't much of a surprise to hear a darker vibe as the band has long proven to be capable of anything. It's Black Thought that will make your ears perk up. Not because of any dead-on impersonations of rap legends or any of his other mind bending skills, but because he opens up. Few emcees have ever been able to boast the technical proficiency that BT can, but he's been long criticized for rarely going outside of his emcee's emcee braggadocio. On The Tipping Point he showed some indications that he would start talking about "real" issues, and sure enough he opens the flood gates on Game Theory.
From the outset, BT starts lettin' off, scorning the press on "False Media." Unfortunately, only his rhymes will keep you from hitting the skip button as the beat is unusually dull and the spoken chorus only brings things to a halt. The fun really begins with the title track, a rock hard banger that is classic Roots in every sense of the word. The up-tempo lead single "Don't Feel Right" is a beautiful anomaly - a feel good vibe expressing just the opposite: "Yo, in the land of the unseen hand that holds trouble/theorize your game, it's difficult to roll a double/the struggle ain't right up in your face, it's more subtle/but it's still comin across like the bridge and tunnel vision/I try to school these bucks, but they don't wanna listen/that's the reason the system makin its paper from the prison/and that's the reason we livin where they don't wanna visit."
"Take It There" is more of 'Riq-lamented societal ills, though his words may lose attention in favor of the incredible song structure. The butter-smooth and likely second single "Baby" follows. Hip Hop songs showing sympathy for the fairer sex either works in spades or fails; this one works in spades. What doesn't work is "Here I Come," not so much because it's bad (it's decent as a standalone track), but it sticks out like a sore thumb on the album and certainly doesn't belong between "Baby" and "Long Time." As somber as an album this is, it finishes on a series of extremely solemn vibe with the incredible "Clock With No Hands," "Atonement" and the touching Dilla tribute "Can't Stop This."
There have been complaints that The Roots played it safe with "Game Theory (which I'd pretty much agree with)," and that they caved to what Def Jam wanted (which makes no sense at all). Yes it's a relatively safe and straight forward album musically, no doubt about it. But Thought makes the most lyrically compelling album to date and the production is still nothing short of great. I still want more.