After 2004's The Tipping Point, The Roots make their return with Game Theory, their first album on new label Def Jam. You might think that by moving to Def Jam The Roots decided to make easily accessible, more mainstream hip-hop music. That's hardly the case. Game Theory is a hard-hitting, musically complex album that is not just one of the group's best albums but also one of the best of the year.
The first thing you'll notice upon listening to Game Theory is that it's actually an album. What I mean is it's really meant to be listened to in one sitting. The marketers at Def Jam obviously knew this as they decided to put three songs in the first video from the album. There is a consistency in the quality of the songs on this album that is admirable and rare. That's not to say that the songs on Game Theory are so alike they are indistinguishable. Each one of them is quite memorable.
After a very short intro, the album gets off to a blistering start with "False Media," an indictment of the current state of America from kids being on Ritalin to the Bush administration. Like most of the songs on this album, this song could not be described as conventional. The chorus is done in spoken word, the beat changes completely towards the end of the song, and Black Thought only does one verse. Despite that, the song never feels like it's meandering or even "experimental." It does what it set to do and makes way for the next song.
Throughout the album, samples are cleverly used. You may not even be able to tell that Kool And The Gang's "Jungle Boogie" and The Ohio Players' "Ecstasy" are even sampled as short vocal bursts from the songs are woven into the tapestry of "Don't Feel Right." The song is driven by a deviously simple piano riff and the vocals of Maimouna Youssef on the chorus. Radiohead's "You And Whose Army" is turned into a laidback jam on "Atonement."
Then, there is "Can't Stop This," the album's final track which was produced by the late J. Dilla. Musical and vocal samples are interwoven in a brilliant, almost seemingly random way that will really make you wish J. Dilla was still alive. The second half of the song is turned into a tribute to the producer as voice mail messages are put over music.
Although Game Theory is firmly a hip-hop album, other genres of music make appearances in some of the songs. "Here I Come" has a Nine Inch Nails-esque feel to it created in part by the guitars and the electronic elements. "Baby" has a very old-school R&B feel while "Clock With No Hands" has a modern soul feel to it. "Livin' In A New World" has a sound reminiscent of light, 1960's pop which is ironic considering Black Thought's lyrics are decidedly dark: "Yo, they got high powered lenses on the cameras outside / It ain't nowhere to run, it ain't hardly nowhere to hide."
With all the varied and interesting music on display, it's easy to overlook just how good Black Thought is on this album. His anger is evident on many songs. "Take It There" talks about how bad things are in his hometown of Philly without glorifying things: "I'm from the side of town / Where shots get sprayed around / Where the expectancy rate be twenty-eight around… Have your whole view on life beyond jaded." He also reminisces on growing up and thinks about where he is now on "Clock With No Hands": "Sittin' in the staircase, holding back tears / Lookin' over mad years of photographs / Pictures of some places, I ain't ever goin' back / Some people I used to love, why I ain't show 'em that."
Game Theory is The Roots' best album since 2002's Phrenology and certainly one of the best albums of the year, hip-hop or otherwise. With a running time of only slightly more than 47 minutes, this album doesn't waste time with interludes or even a hidden track.
Even with the variety found here, it never feels like a collection of songs. It always feels like a cohesive album. It's one that is often dark, angry, and challenging without sounding like an art project gone wrong. If you're sick of the direction hip-hop is going today with the likes of Yung Joc, Rick Ross, and "snap" music, listen to Game Theory and have your faith in the genre restored again.