Understanding and Accepting The Roots' Phrenology (2002)

I remember it vividly. I was in the Hip Hop vinyl section at the mega independent record store Amoeba in Los Angeles. I saw an acquaintance who worked there at the time. He held up a physical copy The Roots album entitled Phrenology which was less then a week old, and said with an adamant passion, “this is the worst album I've ever heard.”

I haven't heard the album yet, and I knew what that meant. It was his way of saying this isn't a like all the other Roots albums. I heard his declaration and I was sold. I added the vinyl to my stack, and it was the first thing I listened to when I got home. My method of music listening was my own at the time. CDs were the popular medium, but I was strictly vinyl and cassette tapes. I would transcribe my vinyl to cassette, and listen to albums in my walkman. I wouldn't listen to the transcribed in intervals, nor would I hear the first fifteen seconds and skip ahead. I would wait until I could listen to the project in it's entirety. The Phrenology album was no different.

My first impression of the album was mixed. At this time as a listener, I was strictly Hip Hop, so the idea of me listening to a song with pop icon Nelly Furtado was against everything I stood for. Well, since it's with The Roots, I guess it's ok… Cody ChesnuTT?? He ain't rappin'… Why's he down with The Roots?! These were a couple of thoughts that went through my mind as I listened. There were songs I liked more than others. The beats were mediocre, the rapping is good, and admittedly, some parts of the album went over my head. There was one thing that I noticed as I listened to the album, one thing that blared over all else…

Where's Malik B.?

As mentioned before, I would transcribe my vinyl to cassette tapes. In the instances where the album recording was completed, and I had some space left on the tape, I would fill the cassette with random B sides and instrumentals from the same artist, just to have a complete tape. In this instance, I put one of my favorite Roots songs to follow the Phrenology album at the end of the cassette, the song entitled Quicksand Millennium



Not knowing what to think after the first listen of the latest Roots album, I heard the soothing sound of the intro of the instrumental for Quicksand Millennium. As the song developed over the next few seconds, I thought to myself Hip Hop never sounded so good. After an hour of what I thought was the version of a avant-garde independent foreign film, the beats and rhymes of Quicksand Millennium was simplified composition of perfection. Then I heard Malik B.'s voice begin the second verse, and it sounded as if he were a spirit that had risen from the dead. After hearing an entire Roots album, and not hearing his voice, this was the first time during the listening experience that I felt a sense of normalcy. This wasn't my first time hearing Quicksand Millennium, I've heard it at least a couple dozen times. But I never heard it like that.

This was one of my most memorable moments as a hip hop listener.

Similar to a lecture given to you by your parents during your youth, I didn't pay Phrenology too much mind. I had a song or two that I liked (Ironically, the Nelly Furtado song was, and still is, one of my favorites) and I would just play those. A week later, I began to like a third song…and then a fourth. After those songs were digested, processed, and understood, I listened to others. Wait…”Water” is about Malik B.? I learned about Black Thought's open letter to his long time fellow emcee, partner, and friend Malik B., then the album began to come together for me. I listened to that track repeatedly, rewinding Black Thought's brilliant description of his current standing with Malik B. As sad as it was to hear, it was a harsh lesson of Life Moves On…. My favorite group would never be the same.



I began to accept and understand Malik B.'s absence. I embraced Nelly Furtado's contribution to Sacrafice. I would play The Seed 2.0 featuring Cody ChesnuTT whenever I would DJ, and audiences loved it. I heard Break You Off travel miles past it's video version edit, and develop into a new song. Each song was it's own masterpiece, and as a collection, it made a complete thought.

Yes, the initial lecture went in one ear and out the next. But there were reminisces that remained. As time passed, the words, message, and acceptance grew into a love and understanding for The Roots fifth studio effort. As many lectures from my mother were not always well received at the time of acceptance, they eventually be understood and applied, and would grow into life long lessons.

I have embraced Phrenology as one of my all time favorite albums, and because of it, I have been a huge supporter of The Roots and their well noted musical growth and expansion.

Written by: @Haylow

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2 Comments

  1. This was the first Roots record I purchased (I purchased the vinyl as well). It changed how I listened to hip-hop, and spoke to the possibilities of the evolution of hip-hop….their use of the sample from The Flying Lizards’ ‘Her Story’ in the track ‘Water’ among the myriad reasons. This remains my favorite Roots recording.

  2. Yes. RT @RoyAyersProject: Understanding and Accepting The Roots’ Phrenology. (written by @Haylow) http://t.co/W4O0sBFD

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