Poetry can be quite subtle. Messages contained within carefully constructed lyrics often require reflection and meditation before a clear meaning can be deciphered. At times, a poetic form even invites a degree of difficulty, or a barrier of entry, to understanding the deeper meaning. As a result, some poetry enters the realm of a riddle.
But what if the message being conveyed from artist to audience is urgent? What if a society is lost and needs clear direction, not subtle suggestion, to move forward? The Roots had an answer to that question on their seventh studio LP “Game Theory”. They decisively chose not to rhyme for the sake of riddling; meaning that the poetry of The Roots is not a puzzle for the listener to figure out. Their message is loud and clear.
Sixteen years ago, in the sweltering heat of late August, The Roots released “Game Theory”. The cover art is viscerally ominous, featuring a faceless person at a gallow with a politically charged newspaper serving as a backdrop. When Questlove, the group’s drummer and joint frontman, was asked about the sober tone of the project, he had the following to say:
“I’m kind of noticing that nobody in urban music really has the balls to just stop partying for one second…I mean, partying is good and whatnot, and it’s cool to get down, but I really think that 2006 called for a serious record…This is our most serious record to date.”
There was sufficient enough reason, both for The Roots as an entity and their members individually, to create a more deliberate sounding album at this juncture of their career. They had recently left their record label, Geffen Records, and this would be their first opportunity with Def Jam Recordings. The Roots were quite established in the music industry at this point, with critically acclaimed darlings, including “Things Fall Apart”, already behind them. However, their most recent LP, 2004’s “The Tipping Point”, was their first after a reduction in size to a four-piece group and left many longtime fans disappointed.
The Roots have long embraced the mentality of making music for the larger world, not just themselves. Across their past efforts, a conscious style of rap permeated, with lyrics directly addressing social inequality and racist institutions oppressing minorities. “Game Theory” continues with this subject matter and the bells it rings for social change are still chiming today. For example, The Roots mission statement on this album is brought to light immediately through the track “False Media”. Listeners are warned that “America is lost” as a result of media institutions sowing division and spreading lies throughout the country. The song’s message is both harsh and blunt, delivered over an interpolation of Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype” and an aggressive drumbeat from ?uestlove. The parallels to America’s relationship with the media today are all too evident as this country has only experienced an increase in media-induced polarization.
The deliberate sociopolitical commentary continues throughout the record. The setting for these musings are often the streets of Philadelphia, hometown of The Roots and where they notice a striking imbalance of power. Album highlight, “Don’t Feel Right” is a lament about life in the city of Philadelphia and specifically addresses the nefarious impacts of prison labor and poor education in the urban community. The poignant line “If you ain’t saying nothing, you the system’s accomplice” should remind listeners of the imperative to be anti-racist, and not just a bystander, in the context of a prejudiced society.
The legendary late producer, J Dilla, is never far from the group’s mind on “Game Theory”. In addition to the record opening with a snippet of one of his beats, the closing track “Can’t Stop This”, is a fully fleshed ode to his legacy. Many recordings are featured as those in the music industry share not just how talented he was, but also how he consistently acted in a kind and humble manner. J Dilla’s instrumental “Time: The Donut of the Heart” is played at varying tempos as Black Thought lays down a sequence of emotional verses. Some of the other instrumentals from this album do sound dated, particularly those that are in the style of a rap/rock crossover like “Here I Come”. Even so, the beats are varied enough throughout that the listener is routinely engaged. Instrumental highlights include “Clock With No Hands”, a slow hypnotic churner that has since been rapped over by the likes of Kendrick Lamar.
Across this album, The Roots carry the torch of “change-through-music” once held by Public Enemy. Through its combination of artistic detail and unabashed political lines, “Game Theory” certainly helped pave the way for albums like “RTJ4”, released this past year amid the height of the Black Lives Matter protests across the country. Sixteen years down the road and the core message of The Roots remains hyper relevant. “Game Theory” offers a unique listening experience that challenges its audience to enjoy, reflect, and go make a change.