The Roots’ frontman Black Thought is not kidding when he rhymes “Dear diary, the fans still swear by me / Even though I’m Late Night now like ‘Here’s Johnny’ ” on “Doin’ It Again,” a remixed version of John Legend’s “Again.” While the hip-hop group is loose and playful on its day job as house band for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, it aimed to please long-term fans on its 11th studio release, How I Got Over.
Channeling 1999’s Things Fall Apart and 2006’s Game Theory, perhaps The Roots’ two most celebrated and acclaimed albums, How I Got Over is dominated musically by ?uestlove’s fierce and snappy drumming and warm pianos courtesy of tenured keyboardist Kamal Gray, as well as frequent affiliates James Poyser and Ray Angry. But thematically, while Game Theory and 2008’s Rising Down provided a glass-half-empty analysis of the political and economic crises, the new release reflects a more rosy outlook on life.
The upbeat title track, which piles on funky organs and guitar noodling, finds Black Thought and frequent collaborator Dice Raw singing –yes singing — about conquering the negativity of the streets. Similar positive vibes permeate through “Now or Never,” “Radio Daze,” and “The Day,” with a rotating cast of guest verses by Littler Brother’s Phonte, California rapper Blu, and Money Makin’ Jam Boyz MCs Truck North, P.O.R.N., and STS.
Remaking songs is a motif on How I Got Over. Besides the aforementioned “Doin’ It Again,” screechy voiced singer and harpist Joanna Newsom guests on “Right On,” which interpolates her 2004 track, “The Book of Right-On.” The existential “Dear God 2.0,” featuring Jim James of My Morning Jacket, serves as a sequel to the recent Monsters of Folk single.
But the definite highlight is “The Fire.” With the familiar “kick-kick-snare” drum pattern of “We Will Rock You,” a simple arena-friendly piano melody, and an infectious chorus by John Legend, it’s the sort of motivational anthem that could be blasted at sporting events.
Despite the sloppy bonus cut “Hustla” and the wicked, but out-of-place battle raps of “Web 20/20,” which are tacked onto the end, How I Got Over is an otherwise cohesive musical triumph, and proof that The Roots can play cheesy ditties like “Lick It For 10″ and “Cellphone Shootout” for NBC, and still deliver timely, boundary-pushing hip-hop albums.