How I Got Over
As usual, we can read a lot into a Roots record title... How I Got Over, the title of a 1951 gospel hymn, chronicles how they got over the near-suicidal pessimism of their previous effort. Following Rising Down (2008), the darkest and most urgent album of the Philly hip-hop group's nine full-lengths since 1993, the legendary crew loosens its grip on listeners. This speaks to several shifts in perception: from the Bush administration's darkest days to the Obama era; from record murder rates in Philly to slightly safer crime stats; from a group screaming at each other on the intro to Rising to one seen by millions every night on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The mood has brightened, ?uestlove's production has retreated from a suffocating electronic rumble to a breezy instrumental sound reminiscent of their 1999 break-out, Things Fall Apart. Coming after a total crisis of faith—in God, in politics, in humanity—they muster much more hope this time out.
The title track's chorus puts this new, tentative trust plainly: "Out in the streets/where I grew up/first thing they teach you/is not to give a fuck/that type of thinking/can't get you nowhere/someone has to care." Between the sparse synth-and-drums instrumental and Black Thought singing two of his three verses much better than any other singing rapper today, this is vintage Roots with some strategic upgrades. Other tweaked throwbacks include the forgettably nostalgic "Radio Daze" and "Doin' It Again," where Thought comments on the crew's competing identities in his trademark flow: "Dear diary, the fans still swear by me/even though I'm Late Night now like "Here's Johnny'/...forever grimey, I guess it's just Philly shining."
When that griminess breaks through the shine, Over gets great. There's plenty of gloom among the best tracks, like the despairing "Walk Alone," and the ethereal Monsters of Folk remake, "Dear God 2.0," with its harp flourishes and falsetto chorus. The rousing John Legend-assisted "The Fire" marks another hard-won redemption song, one of the great reliable pleasures on every Roots album. But this record's best blend of abandon and optimism comes on "Right On," its twangy, turntable-scratched Joanna Newsom sample and mounting layers making for three and a half nearly perfect minutes. Thought raps: "I get into your head and spread like a pandemic/I never put myself in a race I can't finish." Paradoxically, The Roots excel when they can't quite win the race or get over the obstacle, and become obsessed by it. This makes How I Got Over their worst record in over ten years, which means it's still very good.