The Roots - Game Theory
Given that Philadelphia’s arty hip-hop crew The Roots have always had an ear for a catchy melody, fans could have been forgiven for fearing the worst from their recent label defection to Jay-Z’s new look Def Jam. Previous effort 'The Tipping Point' was undoubtedly the most overtly commercial of their career, while the dutifully-selected roster suggests Jigga is intent on securing as many sales as possible to resurrect the once-mighty label to their former glory, in financial terms at least. Thankfully, the free-spirited ?uestlove and his cohorts have thrown a curveball with 'Game Theory', as it proves to be their least compromising work to date. Beyonce or Rhianna cameos seem decidedly unlikely as dark, claustrophobic opener 'False Media' arrives equipped with Public Enemy quotes and edgy drums. The storming title track hijacks Sly And The Family Stone’s 'Life Of Fortune And Fame', while lead emcee Black Thought attacks the beat with a vigour he clearly keeps in reserve for times of need. Old friends Malik B (axed from the band six years ago for drug abuse) and Dice Raw turn in thrilling guest spots, countering Thought’s steady flow with unpredictable lyricism, the tag-team particularly effective on the pounding 'Here I Come'.
The impending sense of doom caused by war zones at home and abroad constantly informs the chilly, unwelcoming production and foreboding lyrics on display - the gritty 'In The Music' being a fine example, “I‘m from the illest part of the Western hemisphere, so if you into sight-seeing don‘t visit there“.
The versatility of the band’s musicianship always elevates The Roots above their peers, and the work displayed here is no exception, eerie strings complementing the relentless rhythm section.
While there are some alluring hooks hidden beneath the murk, there‘s nothing here to rival their previous pop moments such as 'You Got Me' or 'The Seed (2.0)' - even lead single 'Don‘t Feel Right' balances its infectious melody with paranoid writing. As with the last few Roots albums, the latter stages see more introspective tracks easing out the previous braggadocio and street-level observations, although the likes of 'Livin’ In A New World' and the Radiohead-sampling 'Atonement' are not on a par with previous such ruminations.
J Dilla tribute 'Can’t Stop This' concludes the album, fittingly promising to continue the work of their late, great collaborator. Fifteen years into their career, The Roots are handling their business as usual.