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The Roots - Game Theory (Def Jam)

Game Theory, a Big Win for The Roots

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The Roots © Def Jam

The Roots © Def Jam

High expectations can be dangerous. When it comes to the Roots, they're easily considered underachievers by industry standards. Sorry, were you saying something about a Grammy? Friends, one Gramophone and a gold plaque don't necessarily justify 12 years of progressive music-making and a catalog spilling with classics. So, how has the Philadelphia ensemble weathered the storm in an ailing music industry? What's so spectacular about Game Theory, their seventh studio album?

Well, here's the game plan: Black Thought's lyrical prowess, albeit the group's jewel, now plays second fiddle to a dark, buried collection of gut-wrenching vignettes. Malik B has been drafted to off-load some of Thought's mike pressure. Syncopated orchestration is utilized throughout to ensure a consistent soundtrack. Then, let President Carter handle the rest. It's a winning game plan, one that makes Game Theory their heaviest and strongest release since Things Fall Apart.

While they flirted with caliginous concepts on The Tippin' Point, here they embrace it with a cohesive blend of rhythmic pounding soul and recherché fanfare. "False Media" kicks things off on an innovative note, as Riq Gees tackles deception and other societal ills over slaphappy hi-hats and thematic instrumentation. "Don't Feel Right," which appears debilitated compared to heavy-hitters like "Game Theory" and "In the Music," fits perfectly within the mold.

Part of what makes Game Theory succeed is the Roots' ability to mirror current/personal events on their music. Themes about confusion, loss (inspired by tragedies like hurricane Katrina and J Dilla's death), corporate woes, double standards and war pervade throughout this album. Malik B returns on the aforementioned "In the Music" and cosigns Tariq's narrative about street tragedies. Over lush instrumentation, Riq quips: "Them young triggers lose lives by the minute there/They might start but the fight never finish there/They all f***ed up trying to get the ginger bread/A few stacks be the price for a n***a head/Cops and robbers, cowboys and indians//Splits and revolvers, Georgias and Benjamins/A celebration of your loss to your innocence/To your old self you lost any resemblance/They say the city makes a darker impression/The youth's just lost and they want direction/But they don't get the police, they get the protection/And walk around with heat like Charlton Heston, man." It's by far the album's magnum opus.

Introspection continues on the J*Davey-assisted "Atonement" and "Long Time," which offers sharp glimpses into Black Thought's grass to grace autobiography. Roots purists will heave a sigh of relief when they notice that Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella protege Peedi Peedi gave BT a run for his money on the latter. Bearing equal fire power is the brisk "Livin' in a New World," where the Philly emcee uses a megaphone to air out stereotype-based surveillance.

To keep Game Theory from being lopsided, the Roots expand their formula to include cheerful jawns. "Baby," clearly single material, lightens it up with jocular commentary: "slow down when you're hitting the corners. F**k around spill a drink on my $200-dollar suit" and "Stop being a backseat driver, man." Likewise, "Take it There," which features Rahzel's famous beatboxing and the "Boom" sequel "Here I Come" will have fans throwing up their R's at concerts. On "Here I Come," Dice Raw, still as raw as Hottie's microwaved chicken, makes a strong cameo alongside Malik B.

Thanks to Scott Storch's absence, production on Game Theory is harmonious where the Tippin' Point was fragmented. Black Thought also stepped it up (not that he has disappointed much in the past.) But rather than spend 60 minutes basking in braggart rhymes, he plays to his newfound strengths--telling stories and painting pictures you'll recognize no matter what 'hood you're from. By all standards and measurements, Game Theory is a winner.

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