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Music Last Updated: May 30th, 2008 - 11:49:13

Good "Game Theory"
By Mark Anthony Contributing Editor
Oct 15, 2006, 20:35

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This is not a popular view, but I’m thinking that much of the exoticism that we all have scripted on to the body of work that is The Roots, has everything to do with how unimaginative the commercial hip-hop landscape had become over the last decade. Read any of the group’s best work against Greg Osby’s 3D Lifestyles (1993), any of Steve Coleman’s collaborations with The Metrics or even Guru’s three Jazzmatazz projects and it becomes clear just how tame and safe the band has been. It’s not the band’s fault though, that after a steady diet of puffydiddydaddy, that we all thought that Things Fall Apart (1999) was manna (or some digital Achebe) for the desert nation. The disappointment we all registered after more-than-a-few listens of The Tipping Point (2004) was simply reality settling in—It didn’t really matter no more. Sure a few folk got antsy about the group’s move to Island/Def Jam as if they really believed The Roots were an underground group. Most so-called underground acts don’t grace the covers of mainstream magazines and don’t have the kind of promotional support that Okayplayer affords The Roots. Just because you don’t move units don’t mean you underground.

And perhaps it is here that we could place the blame on the band’s front-man, who is about as everyday-man as they come. In a world populated with nigga9s (a nigger shot nine times), rapping CEOs hawking Hewlett Packard laptops, and the great white hope, Black Thought was a lunch-pail cat. Like CL Smooth, MC Ren, and DMC before him, Black Thought simply put in a day’s work on the mic. In some strange way, this is why Game Theory is the most important Roots’ recording since Things Fall Apart. If we could imagine the lunch-pail cat as a barometer for what’s happening in America—I’m talking about the cats who simply punch the clock, do their work, retire to the crib and do it all over again the next day without even a hint of reservation—then it should not be a surprise, given the Iraqi theater (as they correctly described war before television), (un)rising gas prices, corporate downsizing, voter fraud, rising healthcare cost, the Nancy-Gracing of corporate media and the like, that the lunch pail cat is on the brink of rage. Black Thought is the embodiment of that rage in commercial hip-hop, as Game Theory is a sonic assault on the status quo. And assault is not too fine a term; the opening tracks of Game Theory—“False Media,” “Game Theory,” “Don’t Feel Right” and “In the Music”—are like waking up from a street fight that you lost.

Drawing a hook from Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype” (“that’s why I don’t rhyme for the sake of riddling”), The Roots’ “False Media” updates Chuck D’s classic demand for media literacy. But in 1988 Chuck could never have imagined Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation (poison in a plain brown paper bag) or the wide tentacles of Viacom’s digital plantation (where his boy Flava-Flav shills for metaphoric coinage). We’re living the world that Althusser could only theorize about (repeat three times “the ideological state apparatus”!). So it’s left to Black Thought to blur lines (“Hey it’s me a monster/y’all done created/I’ve been inaugurated”), that long been blurred, for those who could discern that we’re a nation addicted to corporate media. Black Thought then channels the indignity of it all (“aim fire/holla bout a dollar/nothin’ is sacred”) into an old school rage session. And indeed the cat might be a little salty about the fact he been punching the clock, like his daddy did before him, and his daddy’s daddy did before that, with little love to be found. All our daddy’s wish they had a mic in their hands to talk about being “old southern men, full or northern pain” as Umar Bin Hassan has said so eloquently. So we don’t begrudge Malik B coming back to the soil dreaming about “M16s/with infared beams/Blowin’ up President’s cribs.”

With ish off his chest, Black Thought returns back to the mic focused and hungry. “Don’t Feel Right” makes legible—to all who think that this music still matters—chronic anxiety syndrome: Stuff don’t feel right and there’s no amount of Deluze and Guttari that could make it any more realer than hearing vocalist Maimouna Youssef “boom-bap” just that point in your ear over and over. And it’s just this sentiment that makes “Don’t Feel Right” arguably The Roots’ most political track. For the rank and file, it ain’t simply about lack of voting rights for formerly incarcerated felons, discount meat and spoiled fruit at the food market or even the complicity of black elected officials in maintaining their misery, but that unyielding feeling that something just ain’t right (“In the land of the unseen hand…the struggle ain’t up in your face it’s more subtle”).

Politics is about what makes people move and there ain’t nothing make you move like the feeling that you can’t breathe. The point here is made even more vividly in the video that The Roots shot for “Don’t Feel Right/Here I Come/In the Music”. The video visually concocts the shadowy reality of state surveillance as Black Thought travels through an ever evolving urban landscape literally shadowed by a law enforcement officer (the State’s arm on the ground”). In post-Patriot Act America, the video final segment is a reminder that some so-called “enemy combatants” will simply look like a bunch of niggas from Philly.

Given the amped pace of Game Theory’s opening tracks, “In the Music” feels more like a reprieve than the most compelling track on the recording. Give the band credit for imagining how a listener might experience Game Theory. The refrain “it’s in the music” is the mantra for a group of artists that understand that head-noddin’ and critical analytics aren’t antithetical (“turn it up, let it knock/Let it bang on the block/Till the neighbors call the cops”). Neither is head-banging, so that when The Roots reprise the best of Phrenology (2001) on tracks like “Here I Come” or the trippy “Long Time” it’s organic—as organic as Black Thought and Peddi Peedi getting nostalgic about hip-hop, the hoods that produced it (“making something outta nothing/cause everybody 50cent from a quarter, where I come from”) and the music of Philly Soul legend Bunny Sigler.

Colleague Oliver Wang, probably says it best when he observes that “from end-to-end Game Theory is a “remarkable achievement in album-making”. Like the trilogy video suggests, this album demands that it be listened to in the suite that it was released as. Only then can the build up-to the group’s rage be fully understood, even during the softer moments, when they are simply lamenting the death of their comrade J-Dilla. Ironically, the move to Def Jam didn’t produce the break-out commercial single that we all expected—and even feared. Instead it a produced a freedom that few of us saw coming.

Mark Anthony Neal is a long-time contributor to Neal is the author of four books, including the recent New Black Man and teaches African-American and Women’s Studies at Duke University. He blogs at

© Copyright 2006

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