The Roots album graced by a Romare Bearden collage is less than half the length of each studio set the group released from 1995 through 2002. It might be the one that requires the most deep listening to absorb. Part of that can be attributed to the array of voices, or characters -- the widest variety of Roots guests yet. Given that, as well as the collage-like insertion of three preexisting recordings, it could be disregarded as less a Roots album than Wise Up Ghost, their Elvis Costello fling. Framed as conceptual, it's an examination of self-destructive cycles with materialism, god, and the devil all factors as much as any of the instrumentalists. In a way, it's one facet of the Roots in severely concentrated form. Black Thought, as ever, sharply portrays a man trying to make the most out of suffocating circumstances. He enters on the creeping dread of "Never," a song that also features Patty Crash in singing Talky Tina mode, with "I was born faceless in a oasis/Folks disappear here and leave no traces." On the following "When the People Cheer," he's even more penetrating and provocative, "Searchin' for physical pleasure if I don't go mental first." Those songs, along with the harder-hitting "Black Rock" and "Understand," are child's play relative to what follows. The album pivots on a jarring minute-length extract from experimental composer Michel Chion's "Requiem." Then, a chilling piano-and-strings ballad fronted by Mercedes Martinez stammers and slips into chaos. Over casually tense drums and piano, "The Dark (Trinity)" involves Black Thought, Dice Raw, and Greg Porn, who blur the line between boastful and despondent; Dice Raw's verse, where he wonders how he went from lusting after Jordans to wanting one of his "bitches" to get an abortion, is coldest of all. "The Unraveling" is a dejected shuffle -- proper support for Raheem DeVaughn's conflicting thoughts of rebirth and emptiness -- with a lullaby break. DeVaughn continues to lead on the finale, "Tomorrow," a sonically sprightly number that can be taken as sarcastic, from the whistled intro to the singer's "I'm thankful to be alive, 'cause you sleep from eleven to seven, and work hard from nine to five." When it seems like the simple and chipper rhythm is about to fade away, the piano switches course and shifts into one of the most gorgeous melodies heard on any Roots album. It crash-lands, abruptly ending an album that, depending on the amount of time spent with it, will seem either fragmentary and hollow or fathoms deep -- either a trifle or among the group's most remarkable work.
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AllMusic Review by Andy Kellman
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