When we last heard from the Roots, the group had released what was then-deemed their last album, Rising Down. The themes on the record often pointed to dark clouds — examining the bleakness of the times — and leading the way was the album’s first single “75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction).” If you’re looking for angry, “75 Bars” is it. In less than a year’s time however, the group unveiled the first single from what would become How I Got Over, performing the record’s title track early on in their residency on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. On the surface, MC Black Thought’s lyrics are still focused on the bleak, the song examines our culture’s shift towards a police state as well as society’s increasingly cutthroat nature, but the foundation of the track is built on the positivity repeated in the hook, “Out in the streets, where I grew up/First thing they teach us: not to give a fuck/That type of thinking can get you nowhere/Someone has to care.” This trend is repeated throughout the record, but while How I Got Over struggles lyrically with politics, religion, and society’s shortcomings, the message is clear: Hope is not lost.
The angelic chorus provided by a trio of female vocalists from the Dirty Projectors—Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, and Haley Dekle—leads the record, shaping a wordless harmony over the subtle beat provided by the band. Picture yourself at a house party with the music flowing throughout the crowd and everyone’s having a good time. Then “A Piece of Light” comes on; had it not been made apparent that the song was in fact from the Roots, it would be hard to imagine anyone making the connection—think acid jazz with a hint of funk. It’s not long before the Roots step from behind the curtain and unveil themselves, the spotlight returning to the main players as “Walk Alone” rises from the speakers. Truck North and P.O.R.N. serve up the track’s first two verses, focusing on the trials of the solitary citizen, and Black Thought chimes in for the third, eventually likening the journey to that of a lone soldier, lost in the unknown: “A kamikaze in the danger zone far from home.” But like “How I Got Over,” the refrain once again sheds some light on the situation, urging the strength from within to reign supreme, “You know I walk alone, always been on my own, ever since the day I was born/So I don’t mind walking alone.”
The understated keys of “Walk Alone” flow seamlessly into the Jim James-led “Dear God 2.0,” a reinterpretation of Monsters of Folk‘s second single from the indie-rock super-group’s 2009 debut. “Why is the world ugly when you made it in your image/And why is livin’ life such a fight to the finish,” asks Black Thought, continuing, “For this high percentage, when the sky’s the limit/A second is a minute, every hour’s infinite.” Concluding with a sense of clarity that there’s an endless possibility for good after flowing through bar after bar of lyrics aimed at economic, environmental and apathetic peril, the song does well in continuing the process of finding the good amongst life’s most damning issues.
By the time “Radio Daze” gets its turn to shine the band is in full effect, ?uestlove leading the group with a weighty beat as the hook continually lurks in the background while Blu and P.O.R.N. flow over the top. Little Brother’s Phonte joins in on “Now or Never,” the song highlighting the need to change for the better regardless of whether or not the world around us is changing for the worse. Similar to the hook that runs throughout “How I Got Over,” “Now or Never” repeats, “Everything’s changing around me and I want to change too/It’s one thing I know, it ain’t cool bein’ no fool/I feel different today, I don’t know what else to say/But I’m gonna get my shit together, it’s now or never.” “DillaTUDE: The Flight of Titus” rounds out the first half of the record as the laid back interlude creates a chilled vibe that cleanses the palate in preparation for what is yet to come.
Icelandic vocalist Patty Crash joins in for “The Day,” the track finding ?uestlove maintaining the flow with a subtle beat on the snare as Blu and Phonte return to the picture. Throughout the track the duo focuses on appreciating life rather than living in the gutter, “I got to try different things in these trying times/20-10 is different than it was in 9-5/It’s come alive-time, I picked a fine time, so get open off life like a fine wine.” “And I finally understand my right to choose, my preacher-man told me it could always be worse: even a three-legged dog has three good legs to lose,” spouts the song as it comes to an end with Crash raising the tone even higher, “‘Cause today’s gonna be the day’s, gonna be the day’s, gonna be the day.” Working in Joanna Newsom‘s “Book of Right-On” from her 2004 album The Milk-Eyed Mender, “Right On” continues the female-focused chorus from “The Day” while Black Thought presses hard on the need to stand strong, “It’s a cold world, I’m not frontin’ like it isn’t/It’s no time for comin’ up shorter than a midget… It’s precious cargo you gotta be strong to lift it.”
“Doin’ It Again” crashes heavy with a pumping piano while ?uest keeps heads nodding. John Legend takes to the mic during “The Fire” on the song’s chorus, helping drive home the same point that is repeated throughout the record, Black Thought adding, “Something in my eyes say I’m so close to having the prize/I realise I’m supposed to reach for the skies/Never let somebody try to tell you otherwise.” The bubbly “Tunnel Vision” acts as the second brief interlude, priming the field for Peedi Peedi and Truck North to jump in on “Web 20/20.” After taking over the final half of “Right On,” STS makes his second appearance on the album with “Hustla,” the track offering a sharp, unique sample dubbed under pounding, heavily distorted bass. Focusing on making the world a better place for the coming generations, the song is the only on How I Got Over to step into pulsating, amped-up production and away from the sound of the band. While not being the liveliest track on the record, the beat on “Hustla” raises the thought of how truly beautiful the music has been throughout the album. While the band is by no means unnoticeable, the lyrical girth that is showcased on How I Got Over often overshadows the backing beat; but again, it would seem that the year the band has been working together on Late Night has given its members a bond ripe for the recording studio.
It’s difficult to come out of How I Got Over with a sense that the world is a beautiful place. With the exception of the lyric-less introduction and the two interludes, each track touches on the weighty burdens that cramp daily life for the majority, also addressing the difficulty to keep struggling when the results can seem so minimal. But the point is there — almost to the extent of becoming redundant, actually: No matter how troublesome daily life may be, the true battlefield is in the mind. And if you can overcome that, you’re a million miles ahead. It would have been a shame if the Roots had bowed out with Rising Down, not only because the group has been one of the most consistent acts in hip hop for over two decades, but because we wouldn’t have ever had the chance to hear How I Got Over. The record goes a long way in reaffirming the Roots Crew’s “legendary” tag-line, but more importantly it focuses on finding inner strength in a world that can tear the soul right out of you; something we need now more than ever.