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“Dolby’s Top 25 Roots Songs”

R.I.P. Malik.

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25 “Somebody’s Gotta Do it” feat. Devin the Dude, Jean Grae & Mack Dub (The Tipping Point)

Typically berated by critics for some odd reason, The Tipping Point (2004) was an album The Roots turned in a mere 17 months after the 70-minute Phrenology and also which capitalized well on the opportunity to play as a light, summery foil to its predecessor’s dark, expansive experimentation. Still, the welcomed summer discourse was politics all the way, with the impending election and the controversial war in Iraq happening, and “Somebody’s Gotta Do it” was a refreshing, if not exhaustive, plaint on the issue of the myriad social problems and also just emotional maladies taking shape in our country’s landscape.

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24 “Complexity” feat. Jill Scott (Phrenology)

One of two “R&B” joints on Phrenology (the band had set out to finish at least one song within every black American style), “Complexity” just seems to breathe a little better than “Break You off,” replacing uncomfortable sexual quest with a refreshing and curiously “street” vibe from Philly’s own Jill Scott, who does the chorus. Scott’s album Who is Jill Scott? also comes fully recommended by this journal.

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23 “Push up Ya Lighter” feat. Bahamadia (Illadelph Halflife)

When it comes to Illadelph Halflife, for the most part, you pretty much know what to expect: a nose-to-the-grindstone approach to amassing a wealth of gritty street diction, finding experimentation and playfulness replaced by directness and austerity. This cut might have one of the best beats on the album, with some gorgeous muted and treated wah-wah ejaculations from Anthony Tidd and some barely audible piano drippings, just to help with the atmosphere.

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22 “Something in the Way of Things (In Town)” feat. Amiri Baraka (Phrenology)

Up to this point, The Roots had made a name for themselves in eerie, cutting and memorable “outros” to their albums, hence hopefully galvanizing what was their own implicit mission of potentiating whole albums in hip-hop as collective statements rather than just clusters of throwaway radio tunes. They go in a shocking direction on this one, though, laying down a jazz groove over which classic New York poet Amiri Baraka can paint a typically disillusioned picture of street life and tale of a black man who’s destined to “die from over-work (sic)”. The whole things assumes a spooky, daunting set of imagery, and culminates in the haunting conclusion of “I’ve seen something / You’ve seen it too / You just can’t call its name”, and a muffled, warped echo sending the proceedings into the night like a mutilated body bleeding into iniquity.

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21 “Section” (Illadelph Halflife)

“Section” is a good illustration of the mixing brilliance of Illadelph Halflife, with some thick, pungent snare sound promulgated and brought to the forefront to almost overpower Black Thought’s vocals, which themselves are swathed in distortion and some muffling technique. True to form, thought, the guitar is hazy and oozy, creating a light, jazzy vibe and indeed hence mimicking some of the mainstream “gangsta rap” beats of the time, with their raw percussionist power and artful ornaments.

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20 “Swept away” (Do You Want More?!!!??!)

“Swept away” epitomizes The Roots’ knack for formulating a catchy, unique kind of chorus, with “Emcees who slept for days / Must be swept away” and those lyrics repeated with this sort of subtle coyness, as if it should be obvious that this crew stands staunchly apart from that malady.

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19 “Walk Alone” feat. Truck North, P.O.R.N. & Dice Raw (How I Got over)

The cool, reflective How I Got over is certainly comfortable in its skin as such and centers itself pretty firmly on this opening cut, which sort of seems to suggest that part of achieving success in life is inevitably going to at least in part entail reaching it on one’s own terms.

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18 “Rolling with Heat” feat. Talib Kweli (Phrenology)

As strong as this list is from front to back, it certainly isn’t hurt by a slight addition of some Talib Kweli, a Brooklyn rapper with an inimitable, silver-tongued flow capable of straddling the realms of erudite verbal gymnastics and ghetto rhetoric. “Rolling with Heat” was the group’s “gangsta rap” installment on Phrenology.

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17 “The Spark” (Things Fall apart)

To be honest Things Fall apart isn’t really an LP I can put on and listen to straight through but when it’s on it’s on, as in the case of this cut which opens with a sharp verse from Malik B. (who usually would tackle just the second verses of songs) and also unrolls a gritty, head-nodding beat full of ominous minor chords and some grippingly funky bass.

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16 “Stay Cool” (The Tipping Point)

“Stay Cool” is at least the spatial centerpiece of TTP if not the emotional one but at the same time it’s cool to hear Black Thought get on and just vent a little, not having to cede to guest emcees or complex, attention-grabbing choruses. It’s a hip-hop song by a musician who’s famous and who seems to have piled up even more problems as a result thereof, now prone to smoking out and chilling, and then writings songs about smoking out and chilling.

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15 “Respond/React” (Illadelph Halflife)

Obviously it’s silly and ill-fated to compare hip-hop to nursery rhymes but at the same time there is an extent to which the result of a great rappers’ bar composition will embody something hypnotic and pure, like the rhythm of a Dr. Seuss book or Brothers Grimm tale, to lull you to sleep, or just into a narcotic state of foot-tapping. Along these lines, the chorus to this “Respond/React” cut displays Black Thought’s gift of rhythm and penchant for keeping things fresh with creative juxtapositions of beats, within particular musical statements.

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14 “You Ain’t Fly” (Do You Want More?!!!??!)

Actually I just shared “You Ain’t Fly” last night to pay respects to Malik in part because it’s got one of my favorite verses of his, with the section of “She said ‘Malik you never called me / ‘Malik you never tried to press / ‘You never tried to press the seven buttons / ‘And address’”. In the process, the thought occurred to me that it might offend women, the group repeating the proclamation of “You ain’t fly” like a million times, but then this is why they throw that third verse with Questlove in, for some balancing in which the girl wins out: “She was walkin’ away / Man I couldn’t deny / Started lyin’ to myself / ‘Yo she wasn’t that fly’”.

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13 “Thought @ Work” (Phrenology)

“Thought @ Work” is right in the middle of the bulbous, heaping Phrenology and whether or not it’s the centerpiece it does sort of glue the album together, taking somewhat a brisker pace than most of its cohorts and weaving a certain street grittiness into the otherwise organic, almost primitive musical interface of straight-ahead, old school hip-hop.

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12 “Guns Are Drawn” feat. Aaron Livingston (The Tipping Point)

To be honest I’ve NEVER EVER heard anybody voice praise of this particular song and rarely if at all have I heard anybody laud this album (I did have one friend who liked it in college), but I happen to prize this tune, which again fits the album’s bill in that it’s summery and light but also adolescently political in its expedited illustrations of moral blights such as the Patriot Act and the ostensibly bellicose encouragement of gun violence.

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11 “Table of Contents (Pts 1 & 2)” (Things Fall apart)

Ridiculously funky and also immensely cathartic, “Table of Contents (Pts 1 & 2)” saunters in with tense synth and spliced drums following a confrontational, ugly intro that features a sound bite of two black men arguing about where the direction of black culture should be going. Right in this opening slot on the album, though, it stretches out its tentacles and unfurls the creative, innovative tapestry that was needed to follow such an opening, and essentially and stridently avoids the trap of Illadelph rehash and stylistic selfsameness.

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10 “It Just Don’t Stop” (Illadelph Halflife)

Some would undoubtedly call this the best song on Illadelph Halflife and not at all without reason, with its hard-nosed adherence to the general album m.o. of no-b.s. street discourse and of course Malik’s dizzying verse featuring “Then I act like this beast unleashed / Rabbis and monks always pray for peace / But it’s deceased / Now only lives the true realness / Open up the mental deaths you rented through my palace”.

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9 “Rising down” feat. Mos Def, Styles P & Dice Raw (Rising down)

Not too many groups in hip-hop in 2008 were forging hard, rhythmic beats that also boasted a noodley guitar riff throughout the whole thing, but then not too many groups were doing this type of thing in general as The Roots were on their undeniably powerful LP Rising down, which was a sort of healthy political conscience emaciated by work and repetition, and relegated to the sadistic, desperate state of the ghetto assailant, essentially. Luckily, we do get some celestial rhyming levity from Mos Def and company on the opener, to help things go down a little more smoothly.

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8 “What They Do” feat. Raphael Saadiq (Illadelph Halflife)

Sort of for the very reason that it takes a stylistic left turn and departs from the generally prevailing song rubric on Illadelph Halflife I tend to favor “What They Do” by a slight margin, which constructs the thought-provoking chorus of “Never do / What they do / What they do / What they do” and also shimmies along at brisk, deliberate pace in its full, ultra-cool vibe, true to band form.

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7 “Double Trouble” feat. Mos Def (Things Fall apart)

It’s almost schizophrenic, indeed, the way The Roots could shift from deep, dark verbal monologues to this sort of goofy rhyme play, but “Double Trouble” is bolstered obviously by the appearance of half of Black Star and also this explosive, immediately intimidating verse of Black Thought that gets right to it right away: “Smack the mic up / And leave dents in it”. This might be The Roots’ best chorus ever, too, with the sort of playful emcee interplay that probably earmarked the art form’s formative days, when scrappy, frugal creativity was an absolute mandate.

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6 “Distortion to Static” (Do You Want More?!!!??!)

Now, as far as I know, this is the only song in history where the chorus is composed exclusively of, um, a bunch of laughing, so that’s pretty cool… and in general it acts as a great Do You Want More?!!!??! side A companion piece to the awe-inspiring “Mellow My Man,” jogging along aerobically in golden, boom-bap groove and toggling nicely between battle rap stoned-out fu**ery.

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5 “Quills” (Phrenology)

Lots of things are most compelling about this tune that, at track 11, is practically buried in the unwieldy predator that is Phrenology. First of all, he talks about my favorite beer, Beck’s (cha-ching). In all seriousness, it’s got some of Black Thought’s best emceeing ever… fu** it just listen. There’s too many classic lines to even cite in one blurb.

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4 “Get Busy” feat. Dice Raw, Peedi Peedi & DJ Jazzy Jeff (Rising down)

“Get Busy” takes the baton from the title track as track three on the powerful, gut-punching Rising down, and really ends up standing as probably the premiere arbiter of ENERGY on this LP, sort of like a full-song, visceral authentication of the mantra that appears later in the album of “The show must go on”. Don’t miss Peedi Peedi’s verse on this joint either, where he spits a brilliantly memorable laundry list of taunts and general cockiness before the rewardingly brainless climax of “North Philly get it in”.

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3 “The Next Movement” (Things Fall apart)

This is probably the first song on this list that could CONTEND for best Roots song with the possible exception of “Distortion to Static” (and if you’ve got interests in record companies’ fiscal gains you’d probably take “The Seed,” which I find pretty much appalling). Again, the energy in the chorus is completely explosive, true to form of the noxious and unpredictable Things Fall apart, and this song fully justifies the quip I think from Pitchfork that was something like The Roots are doing things NOBODY else does. It’s very true.

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2 “Mellow My Man” (Do You Want More?!!!??!)

The summer after I graduated high school, after a couple of underwhelming mix tape choices from Things Fall apart like “Step into the Relm” and “Without a Doubt,” I somehow stumbled on Do You Want More?!!!??! in I think a random CD burn from a friend and was jettisoned into the hip-hop eternal with “Mellow My Man,” which follows the otherwise un-follow-able “Distortion to Static” and manages to one-up it with Herculean coolness, Black Thought and Malik B. double-teaming the verses with some pithy battle raps and also some slick, grooving synth dripped onto the crisp, popping drums from Quest.

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1 “Water” (Phrenology)

The whole, over time and upon hundreds of listens, seems to sink into the details like quicksand, and what emerges as sovereign is that funky bassline that informs the initial, boom-bap section, that strange sound bite of an old black man talking about “pulling a rabbit out of a hat”, and that ominous, almost hushed keyboard sound that anchors the song’s jazzy, five-four mid-section. Actually, the whole tune is kind of like an ode to Malik B., the auxiliary rapper and childhood friend of Black Thought who had just left the group and was for the first time, on this very album, not taking part in the studio recording. There’s career-defining nostalgia from Thought about his lost bandmate, which effectively makes you wonder, or rather REMEMBER, why you do this sh** in the first place. Most importantly, thought, it’s a frightening, astonishing listen, the only instance of “prog-hop” (as adjacent to prog-rock for its long, multifarious structure, that is) in history, at least that I know of, and also a well-rounded beast that culminates in the gradual cessation of the sound of a heartbeat and aural pervasion of water rushing.

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