After spending much of the ’90s establishing themselves as critical darlings, The Roots entered the new millennium from a different vantage point — emerging stars. The rap ensemble’s Q rating began catching up to their acclaim with the breakout success of their fourth studio album, Things Fall Apart, in 1999. The group’s first album to earn gold certification, Things Fall Apart was followed by Phrenology, which yielded the group another gold plaque. During the latter half of the aughts, The Roots took a creative detour following the release of their sixth studio album, 2004’s The Tipping Point, which featured a more pop-oriented sound and garnered a mixed-reaction in comparison to the universal praise attributed to their previous efforts.
Heading back to the drawing board, The Roots reemerged two years later with Game Theory, the group’s seventh studio album, described by Questlove as “very mature, serious, and very dark.” With natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina ravaging Black communities and sociopolitical strife during the thick of the George W. Bush administration, The Roots had plenty to say, resulting in a topically dense body of work. “In this day and age, I’m kind of noticing that nobody in urban music really has the balls to just stop partying for one second,” Questlove said at the time. “I mean, partying is good and whatnot, and it’s cool to get down, but I really think that 2006 called for a very serious record. This ain’t the Debbie Downer record, or the political, save-the-world record, but this is definitely not the MC-based, battle-themed album that the Roots have been known for. This is our most serious record to date.”
A similar formula was followed with the release of Rising Down, which, at the time, was dubbed as “the most incendiary, political album” of the group’s career. Arriving during then U.S. Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, the album, which was inspired by William T. Vollmann’s 2004 book Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means, was released in April 2008. Drawing from the crime and violence plaguing their home city of Philadelphia, Rising Down was lauded for its subject matter and production, but failed to move the needle commercially, stalling out at paltry 171,000 copies sold. It was one of the group’s lowest-selling albums in their illustrious catalog.
However, it was still a time of growth.
Months after the album’s release, The Roots launched their first annual Roots Picnic music festival, held at the now-closed Festival Pier at Penn’s Landing.
Featuring an eclectic array of acts including Gnarls Barkley, Sharon Jones, The Dap-Kings, Santogold, Deerhoof, J*Davey, Diplo, Esperanza, and headlined by The Roots themselves, Roots Picnic was a massive success and indicative of the group’s transition from their creative dark age to becoming a beacon of light for hip-hop. Riding high off the success of the event, The Roots made further headlines in November 2008, when it was announced that the group would be the new official house band on Late Night, coinciding with Jimmy Fallon’s replacement of Conan O’Brien, the following March. That news, which came with the announcement that The Roots would be drastically cutting back on their intense touring schedule, brought into question when fans of the group would be getting a new album. However, those concerns were quelled in February 2009, with Questlove referencing the existence of a new album, titled How I Got Over, on Twitter, albeit without much more information.
Less than two months later, following one of the group’s jam sessions at New York’s Highline Ballroom, Black Thought revealed that How I Got Over, was slated to be released June 2010. “The new record is well underway — right now, it’s about completed,” he shared, at the time. “It’s a more celebratory album — the story of triumph and the rise of the brand that is ‘The Roots,’ and how we kept our heads above water consistently for so many years in the game without taking a hiatus, maintaining some love and relevancy for all this time. And it refers to the gospel song by Mahalia Jackson. That’s the initial inspiration for the title of this joint. It’s like a moving performance of her rendition of that song.”On June 24, 2009, just months after beginning their gig on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, The Roots debuted the title-track from How I Got Over via a live performance on the show, ramping up anticipation for the album’s tentative release.
The album was delayed to October 20, 2009, before being pushed back, yet again, to June 8. According to Questlove, the false starts surrounding How I Got Over was a product of an arduous recording process, with upwards of several hundred new tracks at their disposal. In addition to the sheer amount of new material, the group’s obligations to Jimmy Fallon also put a strain on their creative process, with the group often working 16-hour days, Monday through Friday, and a daily commute from Philly to New York City.
“We recorded some stuff right there on set, working in our little dressing room or whatever — just getting it in where we fit in, so to speak,” Black Thought revealed. “We record sometimes after we tape a show for the night — we just hit the studio.”
To gear up for its release, The Roots unveiled the album in its entirety for the first time during a listening party in NYC, and rocked out at the third annual Roots Picnic, just weeks away from it hitting shelves. These distinctions helped make the album the group’s most heavily promoted and high-profile release since unleashing Phrenology nearly a decade prior. Ultimately, How I Got Over was released on June 22, 2010, over a year from its initial release date. Given the quality of the material, it was well worth the wait.
Kicking off with the sublime intro, “A Peace of Light,” featuring Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian and Haley Dekle, How I Got Over immediately hits its stride with “Walk Alone,” as Black Thought dives into a rhyme spill about standing ten toes down. Joined by frequent costars Truck North, P.O.R.N., and Dice Raw, Black Thought and his gang form like Voltron, an early indicator that How I Got Over captures the collaborative magic of previous albums from the group. Contemplating the ills of society, Black Thought airs his grievances to a higher power on “Dear God 2.0,” which is bolstered by guest vocals courtesy of indie rock supergroup Monsters of Folk. How I Got Over‘s first masterful moment comes in the form of “Radio Daze,” an introspective number that touches on the misdirection, misinformation, and other drawbacks of the multimedia industrial complex. Paired with left coast rhymer Blu — who reels off an electric opening stanza — P.O.R.N., and Dice Raw, Black Thought rounds out this solemn offering that includes shades of Outkast’s “Player’s Ball (Reprise).”
In light of the election of Barack Obama, less than two years prior, How I Got Over contains an ample amount of triumphant numbers that speak to the hoper and dreamer in us all — “Now Or Never” among them. “Everything’s changing around me/And I want to change too,”Dice Raw croons on the hook, while North Carolina spitter Phonte checks in with the first of two appearances he makes on the album. Paying tribute to late producer J. Dilla with “DillaTUDE: The Flight of Titus,” which provides the perfect segue into “The Day,” a track that pairs Black Thought, Blu, and Phonte for one of How I Got Over’s most enticing selections. Powered by guest vocals from Patty Crash, “The Day” finds Black Thought and company hitting on all cylinders, providing an uplifting anthem that ranks among the defining compositions of the band’s career.
The jittery salvo “Right On,” which samples singer Joanna Newsom’s 2004 cut “The Book of Right-On” and includes a clutch guest spot from rapper Sugar Tongue Slim, stands out as one of the premier offerings. But the album’s crown jewel is undoubtedly “The Fire,” which encapsulates its overarching theme and sentiment. Rhyming about the fervor and determination that comes with evolving into a champion, Black Thought constructs a trio of cocksure verses that speaks to the mindset that’s required to make it through the fires in our lives and strive for greatness. Performed at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, and used in the 2015 movie Creed, “The Fire” has become one of the more recent rap songs to take on a life of its own as a sports anthem and remains a signature cut from the group.
Debuting at No. 6 on the Billboard 200, with 51,000 copies sold in its first week, How I Got Over would not achieve the commercial success of previous long-players like Things Fall Apart and Phrenology, but was afforded the acclaim and adoration afforded those two albums. Devoid of any overt radio-friendly fare, the album presents The Roots at the top of their game, with a message for the people at a time when the world bought into the possibility of change.
While other albums in their catalog have amassed more universal prestige, How I Got Over stands as arguably the best album from The Roots since Things Fall Apart and is recognized by many as a modern-day classic.
Preezy Brown is a New York City-based reporter and writer, filling the empty spaces within street and urban culture. A product of the School of Hard Knocks, Magna Cum Laude. The Crooklyn Dodger. Got Blunt?
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