Although the Roots have always been recognized for their originality, drummer ?uestlove says the band's records have actually been formulaic.
"I had a formula that I followed for the last five records," he admitted. "I did my three songs in a row, my jazz filler, my strong beginning of the second record, my guest spot, the slow song, the fast song, and then the poem."
But on Phrenology, due this summer, all of that is about to change.
"[We're not making] radical changes and not doing anything to be deep, even though you could probably take us calling the album Phrenology as us trying to be deep. But at least we didn't call the record Da Next Level or 2003 or one of those rap titles," ?uestlove said with a laugh.
"Of course, being that [phrenology] is the study of the brain, we figure that we're going to address more topics, something that we rarely do on other Roots albums," he continued. "This is probably the album in which [Black Thought] has gone full-speed ahead on subject matters like sex in advertising, drug abuse, the state of the world, stuff that he rarely touches upon. So this [album] is much more than our average 17 freestyles and the one token love song at the end of side two." As if 18 tracks guided by a clearly defined mission is a common occurrence in hip-hop records these days. Considering their refreshing high standards have impressed and surprised listeners in the past, it shouldn't surprise anyone if the Roots are able to do the same thing by departing from their typical atypicality.
To come up with all the changes that fans can expect, ?uestlove took out a legal pad and wrote down a list of things the Roots haven't done on record yet. How might the Roots reinvent themselves? ... ?uestlove counted the ways: "We haven't done any songs over 100 beats per minute, we haven't done a song totally Fender Rhodes-free, we've never outright sampled other stuff, we've never addressed personal issues, never did a short album, we've never worked with other poets, we've never experimented with electric guitars.
"Once I got to observation 15, it just became about how can we make an album that is totally us and somehow incorporate at least half of that list. As a result, Phrenology is our fastest, shortest, most aggressive album."
"My initial goal was that I wanted to do an album that was sonically closer to a Public Enemy record a sonic assault," ?uest said. "As a result, 'Thought at Work' is one of the first songs I worked on."
"Thought at Work," the first single, is an homage to Kool G Rap & DJ Polo's "Men at Work," off 1989's Road to the Riches.
" 'Men at Work' was the song that kind of brought me and [Black Thought] together in high school. We were just flabbergasted when we heard it. [Black Thought] memorized that rhyme in one day and then performed it the next day in school. It's Kool G Rap rhyming the speed of a cheetah on speed running from the cops in a Lamborghini. So 'Men at Work' has always been our theme."
In the spirit of change, Phrenology serves to introduce fans to an expanded circle of collaborators. Except for Talib Kweli, none of the expected cast of characters will make guest appearances on the album. In place of Mos Def, Common, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and others, Project Pat, Nelly Furtado and another still-undetermined female vocalist will be featured.
"Rock You" is an aggressive, hip-hop version of Queen's pump-up anthem "We Will Rock You." "Quills" brings back a more familiar Roots sound, with a borrowed hook from Swing Out Sister's "Breakout."
The starkest example of the Roots' transformation is on a track titled "Water." ?uest described the haunting, epic song as being about "our cry to our brother to get his life together," sidestepping around saying whether the lyrics are directed at former bandmate Malik B. by adding, "I think that's as much as I can say. And I don't think it's being cryptic, it's being straight to the point."
The song was partially inspired by a scene in Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever" in which Wesley Snipes' character is walking through Harlem looking for his brother, played by Samuel L. Jackson. "It's like a six-minute uncut walk through hell. It just made you feel dirty. I wanted to do the audio version of that, which is probably the most personal thing I've ever had to do." ?uest explained. "We all have our vices, so I don't want 'Water' to seem like, here, on one side of this fence are five very perfect individuals and on the other side of the fence is the flawed individual whom we're preaching to.
"I feel kind of dirty exploiting it," ?uest continued, "but I'm really all about just educating people and showing them what goes on with us and even if it's with the Web site (www.okayplayer.com), diaries I keep, problems that we go through. I think it's important to show that all isn't jazzy and mellow with the Roots and that we ain't always lighting incense and patchouli oil."
Dismantling the perception that the Roots are hippie bohemians has always been a challenge for the group, ?uest said. "I'm tired of arguing. How do you say you're not conscious? Like, are we unconscious? I'm just being what I am. I'm not a crack dealer, so I can't talk about days of dealing in the projects. But I think I have a relevant voice in hip-hop. It's not suburbia 'Fresh Prince of Bel Air' hip-hop, but it's not Straight Outta Compton hip-hop either. It's just the hip-hop that I'm accustomed to and that I'm true to."