No success like failure

By FRANKLIN SOULTS  |  October 3, 2006

In their block of the hood, the Roots have opted for a more classic if equally jarring move with an album that forgoes crossover dreams for ghetto solidarity, embracing paranoia, pessimism, and stark alienation because you’ve got to “watch who you put all your trust in” since “worldwide we coincide with who’s sufferin’.” It’s all so uniformly bleak that individual tracks are at first difficult to assimilate. But in time each cut stands out for its taut structure, its dense production (this marks drummer/producer ?uestlove’s personal tipping point), and, surprise, its varied hooks. Slowly building into the hard-rap explosion of the title track and the rhythm-guitar-powered hallucination “Take It There,” the disc finally breaks into some sweet variety on its second half, which slips from the pleading soul of “Baby” to the bruising boasts of “Here I Come,” from the smooth-jazz musings of “Clock with No Hands” to the Radiohead-sampling trip-hop of “Atonement,” all of it culminating in the extended experimentation of the eight-minute-plus “Can’t Stop This,” an RIP tribute to former producer J. Dilla.

Game Theory, which many critics are calling the Roots’ best, seems inspired by Sly Stone’s anti-masterpiece There’s a Riot Goin’ On, but like Idlewild, which some critics are calling OutKast’s worst, it’s really a tribute to hip-hop’s triumphant reach, to the way it represents an America — red and white, blue and black— that feels as big as the world, as big as Right Now, without leaving the block. No wonder Andre Benjamin’s dreams of flying suddenly seem to him so hopeless.

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