Long hailed as the best live band in hip-hop, the Roots are different things to different listeners. They’re the Bonnaroo-friendly jam band known for playing three-hour sets. They’re the showcase for versatile producer and drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, who’s worked with artists as diverse as D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, John Mayer and Hank Williams III and who even mastered the shopping-mall anthem with “Birthday Girl,” the new bonus track featuring Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump. But most importantly, they’re the unapologetic community activists who’ve now crafted eight powerful if inconsistent albums of musically inventive, lyrically challenging hip-hop.
In the studio, the band has always suffered from the tension between commercial concerns and political convictions, and it hasn’t really hit the right balance since the masterful “Things Fall Apart” in 1999. This time, having disposed of commercial worries with “Birthday Girl,” the politics are more hardcore than ever, from the title (a nod to a seven-volume treatise on violence) to the album art (a Southern propaganda poster called “Negro Rule” from the 1890s) to lyrics by co-founder Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and guests including Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Common that take on, among other things, black teenage nihilism, ghetto youth serving as cannon fodder, global warming and the limits of technology (“Does a computer chip have an astrology?/And when it f--- up, does it give you an apology?”).
An edgy, unsettling vibe permeates most of the grooves, building to resolution with the disc-closing, emotionally uplifting "Rising Up." But as on the collective’s last few albums, the mood is sometimes shattered by pointless detours—snippets of a taped conversation railing at the group’s old label or lyrical complaints about the vapidity of BET—as well as scattered rhymes that just aren’t up to the overall quality of the rest (“Between the greenhouse gasses/Mother Nature’s spinning off its axis”).