Roots drummer/mastermind Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson is used to intense work conditions.
Over the last few years, he's balanced the group's rigorous touring demands with extracurricular activities like serving as musical director for "Chappelle's Show" and Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt 10th anniversary concert (see "The Roots' ?uestlove Says Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt Show Will Be 'A Challenge' "), occasional DJing stints and other responsibilities.
But ?uest claims he's never experienced the kind of work pressure he's felt over the past couple of months while finalizing his band's latest LP, Game Theory, which comes out Tuesday.
"My girlfriend was teasing me, she said, 'Babe, you have white hair.' I actually started to wonder," the drummer said, only half-joking. "No album has caused me as much stress and lost sleep and headaches as this one. It gets harder by the record. I was kind of wondering why my hair hasn't fallen out. No member of the Roots stresses out more than I do — I'm the neurotic, Woody Allen member of the Roots. I wonder why my hair hasn't betrayed me yet!"
Game Theory is the long-running group's ninth LP, following 2004's The Tipping Point, and the first album recorded under the aegis of new boss Jay-Z, who signed the Philadelphia collective to Def Jam last September (see "President Jay-Z's Latest Act: The Roots Ink With Def Jam"). But that's only the beginning of the anxiety for Thompson.
Originally, Game Theory was slated to be released by the Roots' longtime label Geffen, according to ?uest. But the band negotiated their unconditional release from the company just one month into the sessions, and the resulting legal wrangling prevented the frustrated crew from recording for six months.
The downtime coincided with the Hurricane Katrina disaster and escalating violence in the Middle East, both of which influenced the direction of what would become the revamped Game Theory, ?uest explained.
"When you're watching people in a helpless situation, you're like, 'Damn, I got to do something to help,' " ?uest said. "When people are in a position when they don't have any control and can't control the outcome, they will tend to do things to affect themselves. I think for us, our frustration [came out in] the music, like, 'Damn, we got to do something. Oh yeah, let's affect the music.' A lion's share of this music was done during [the aftermath of Katrina], which really explains the downer attitude of the records. For us, this is the darkest, [most] serious album we've ever made."
Thompson also noted the tragedy's impact on Roots lead MC Black Thought, whose children live in New Orleans. Traditionally known more for boasting about his lyrical prowess, on this album, ?uest asserted, Thought continues to tackle the heavier subject matter he first displayed on The Tipping Point.
"He's totally throwing people off. He's very open, very vulnerable, talking about real-life situations. He's more or less playing the Rod Serling of this thing," Thompson said, referring to the late, legendary creator and host of "The Twilight Zone." "There's definitely a lot of narrative, a lot of observation, and it's very serious. And that's the thing I want people to realize when they hear this record, [because] a lot of people are taking his monotone delivery as him not caring about his inflection. Because when we first started, we came as the jazz-rap group. Inflection was the most important part of his delivery, he accentuated words. Fourteen years later, I don't think the Roots should have to resort to those tricks. It's past that."
Now that the Roots have wrapped up Game Theory, ?uest and company are off to the familiarity of the road in order to promote it; the group played a pair of career-retrospective shows in New York in May (see "Nas, Common, Badu Join Roots For First Radio City Show"). They've already completed a trilogy of videos to accompany their latest single "Don't Feel Right" and are scheduled to perform at an album-release party in their hometown of Philadelphia on Monday night (August 28). But as usual, ?uest's eyes are focused just a bit farther up the road.
"As of this speaking, anything to do with the term 'game theory' is strictly past tense only," he said, clearly still relieved that the album is finished. "I'm working on [album] number 10 right now — I want to be the first rap artist to actually make a good 10th record, that's my goal. [We're already] four songs into the next project."