Lighthouse by The Roots – Since the middle of last year, the universe of my hip-hop/rap (N.B. I hate these names. There’s even another one for The Roots I’ll discuss below. I don’t know what they mean or what the distinctions are between them. Very much similar to alt-country/roots rock/insurgent country. Maybe my categories are broader. So by “hip-hop” (which, if memory serves, was historically the second term used after “rap”) I mean music written/produced/performed primarily my black artists wherein some portion of every track is rapped/spoken as opposed to sung in the conventional definition of that word (N.B. to utter words in musical tones and with musical inflections and modulations.)) listening has been composed of Yeezy/Hova (“Y/H”) (Watch the Throne and MBDTF) and The Roots (last year’s How I Got Over and their latest Undun) (with a couple of brief interludes by some old-school Public Enemy and a “mix-tape” (which is still just a CD) of a “sucka MC” (who sampled Kings of Leon, which shouldn’t have worked, but did) provided me by a legal assistant who moonlights as a rapper. (N.B. We got all (literally all) kinds up on 30.)
In this time, I’ve decided there is something so different about the music Y/H make compared to the music The Roots make that it really makes so no sense to lump them in the same general (whatever you call it) category. (N.B. Further research has discovered that The Roots are also referred to as Neo-Soul, which sounds right (I guess.)) I’ve made it clear in the past what I think/thought of Y/H’s Watch the Throne. (It’s still only getting better. No rapper has a cadence like Jay-Z. That coupled with his (at times) thought provoking rhymes and his overall Jay-Z-ness make it very clear to me he’s the greatest (N.B. The PJ definition of great in WD VII21) rapper on the planet and prolly the greatest ever.) But it is very much a hip-hop album, words and beats and samples forged together in a cramped studio control room under Yeezy’s preternatural tutelage. Music created by machine, by loops and splices.
Now don’t think I’m in any way implying that Y/H crew aren’t talented artists. Because they are freakishly talented. They can create beats and rhymes and hooks that you didn’t realize were vital until you heard them. But what they aren’t a musicians. Yes, they make music, but any idiot with a Mac and GarageBand can technically make music. Would you consider them musicians?
The Roots are musicians first. (N.B. And, as anyone who watches Late Night with Jimmy Fallon can tell you, very talented musicians) A full band: drums (?uestlove!!) guitars and keyboards. And their most recent stuff has been such an ebullient mix of beats and rythyms and melodies, I’d certainly listen to instrumental versions of several songs. They feel that good. (N.B. This is prolly why their collaboration with John Legend of classic soul covers (Wake Up!) worked so well.)
And this makes their music different. Y/H and WTT are about bombast, bad-ass (sighs) and head-pounding bombast, but bombast none the less. The Roots have always been deeper, less chest-thumping, more introspective. And Undun doesn’t vary. It’s a song cycle, a Horatio Alger of the streets, about realizing your place, hoping to get out, learning that getting on top is the only way out and then being killed in the game (“it’s all in the game, yo.”). But it’s told (N.B. and “told” in the loosest sense. It’s very weak on narrative but strong on setting scenes and spinning indictments/lamentations from them) in reverse. I found this fascinating. The first non-instrumental track “Sleep” seems to be the hero, Redford Stevens’ thoughts after the grave what I did came back to me eventually / there I go from a man to a memory. And the final non-instrumental track “Tip the Scale” is Redford younger and on the streets realizing his environment Now I realize it’s the winner who takes all / soldiers on the street with 8th grade diplomas. You know the end of the story and that makes each track succesively heavier as they become more innocent. This took a lot skill to pull off and they did it, expertly.
This track “Lighthouse” (whose chorus absolutely kills me) is from the middle of the story. Maybe the turning point. The certainty that no one’s coming to help. He is where he is. That breath of fresh air that comes with the realization that this is his life. I leave the memories here I won’t need’em / if I stop thinkin’ in lies, then that’s freedom. It captivated me.
Yes, it’s a tale that’s been told before from Citizen Kane to American Gangster. The Roots’ don’t really have a fresh spin on the narrative. But the music and the sequencing really struck me. And it’s become one of the better albums I’ve heard in a while, comparing with The Suburbs in terms of DV. However, what the album really did, during the day of windshield time in which it was worn out, was clarify the distinction between The Roots and all other hip-hop/rap/neo-soul artists. That is: There is The Roots and then there’s everyone else. Give it a spin. You won’t be disappointed. Enjoy.