THE ROOTS with graph nobel at Kool Haus (1 Jarvis), Saturday (February 1). $36. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Having copped a Grammy, jammed with Jay-Z and sold a million-plus records over the past couple of years, the Roots could easily have settled in, recorded another You Got Me and watched the till start ringing. But this is the Philly crew that built a career out of torching every page in the hiphop rule book.
They've played with live instruments, recorded an opera-inspired gunslinger track and and done shows that lasted longer than the typical 15 minutes. Their experiments sometimes provoked more head-scratching than head-nodding, but you knew the Roots were always ready to try something new.
None of this was preparation for the new Phrenology disc. Sliding effortlessly from a Bad Brains-inspired punk jam and the 12-minute free jazz soundscape Water to some of the roughest street-friendly beats the Roots have ever put to tape, the album reaches wider than they ever have before. It's also their most organic-sounding.
It's tempting to call Phrenology a departure record, but a departure from what?
"My blueprint is always going to be Prince, circa 1980 to 1988," Roots drummer ?uestlove explains from New York City. "He's pretty much the last figure in black music who can really get some good, impassioned remarks from music lovers -- not hiphop fans -- for each of his records.
"I was there when 12 of us decided to sneak out during lunch period to get Around The World In A Day, and all the newbie Purple Rain fans were totally thrown off. Those are the things I remember.
"I always said that if I had a career, I wanted people to buy each of my records and totally be taken aback. I just don't want to sound typical. I'd rather be horrible than mediocre."
As diverse as Phrenology is, the centrepiece of the set is undoubtedly The Seed (2.0). A sloppy, rec-room rock cover of Atlanta upstart Cody ChesnuTT's The Seed, the chugging, hook-heavy tune features ChesnuTT and MC Black Thought trading verses about fooling around on a lover.
?uestlove refutes the suggestion that dropping The Seed (2.0) as the Roots' next single is almost a provocation to the group's hardcore hiphop audience. He insists instead that the track sums up everything the group is trying to accomplish with its music.
"To me, that song represents a litmus test to show the IQ of Roots fans," he laughs. "The literal translation is "We're going to fuck other women.' The metaphorical translation is that we're cheating on the thing we called the love of our life: hiphop.
"In this instance you could say we're fooling with rock and roll, but basically, the statement we're trying to make is that we're interested in other forms of music. We're just not going to be committed to one woman, musically speaking."
The most conventional song on the record is Break You Off, a You Got Me-style R&B/hiphop mash-up featuring Musiq on vocals. What's not at all conventional is the way the track was made.
A dozen vocalists, from D'Angelo and Gerald Levert to an unnamed R&B superstar who stood them up for four days, were tried out. The tune itself took almost half a million bucks to record, and ?uestlove says he could release a complete CD of Break You Off alternate versions.
"The track actually started with Musiq, but his label wouldn't allow him to be on it," the drummer sighs. "After that we literally went through 12 painstaking people who either couldn't work with the track or simply didn't show up. I understand. It's not really an honour to be on a Roots record, and black people just naturally aren't on time anyway. If you want someone to be there at 9, call them for 6:30 and they'll show up at 10:15.
"Eventually, much to MCA's horror, the bill started to mount. You've got to get Mr. Unnamed R&B star his hotel suite at $600 a night and plug him into a fancy studio at $3,000 a day, plus maybe he won't work without his Hennessy and some fresh daisies. Suddenly, it's 20 grand a week just for one guy. Multiply that by 11 people and the next thing you know one song costs three or four times more than our first album." firstname.lastname@example.org