When you look at it head on, from just the right distance, the world seems solid. The order of things presents itself as impenetrable. Yet a change in the angle of vision reveals fissures, fusions, flukes – a world of pieces shifting ceaselessly. One vision of the world promises stability and order, the other freedom and creativity. Which of these is more attractive depends on where one finds oneself: pressed upon by the weight of the world, or abraded by the shifting fragments.
Which of these worlds is real? This is the metaphysician’s diagnosis: “If you want to calm your nerves, then find the arrangement of the world as it really is.” But the physician can only prescribe convalescence or catharsis: “Accept the reality of the given world or realise the subliminal essence of the immanent world.” This regiment exhausts us rather than making us well. It lacks the vigour of creative activity. We don’t need to know; we need to make.
In our times we can neither endure our thoughts nor the task of rethinking them. We think restlessly within familiar frameworks to avoid thought about how our thinking is framed. Perhaps that is the ground of modern thoughtlessness.
Creativity requires us to leave the metaphysician behind – the making of the world requires dreams, contradictions, promises, lies, empty space, messy abundance. Turning away from knowing does not force us to apologise for the durable architecture of the world – this is the vice of Richard Rorty’s ironic liberalism. He calls on poets of the self to write their lines on the walls of the world as if they were solid, so not to upset things too much – a consolation of the comfortable, irony in the face of human disaster.
The condition of the world impels those caught between the monuments of the given to return to the fissures, fusions and flukes, in hopes of exercising our creativity on the social architecture. We need world makers. We need lovers.
It is with these thoughts in mind that I return to The Roots. Phrenology, the follow-up to Things Fall Apart, explores the creative challenge the band faced after producing an album that reconstructed hip-hop – trying to avoid becoming a parody of themselves or reducing their message to braying didactic verses. The difficulty of achieving real creativity is political as well as artistic and it demands not knowledge but love, desire and risk; it is the Roots’ exploration of how to make worlds anew that offers up lessons of wider import.
Phrenology is a messy, transgressive, excessive, lustful album. It loses itself in the new rather than finding itself in what came before. Like all new worlds, the one the Roots are making grows out of love – that delicate interweaving of desire, need, hope, and vulnerability.
The album begins with the voice of a female deity declaring:
In the beginning, there was me. I was rhythm, life, two turntables, one mike.
This is not only the sound of a world creator looking down upon her work, it also returns us to a central motif of Things Fall Apart – the relationship between the artist and hip-hop culture as romantic bond. Black Thought declared on “Act Too… The Love My Life”:
Sometimes I wouldn’ta made it if it wasn’t for you. / Hip-Hop, you the love of my life and that’s true. / When I was handlin’ the shit I had to do, / It was all for you, from the door for you. / Speak through you, gettin’ paper on tour for you. / From the start, Thought was down by law for you.
This motif runs throughout the Roots’ music and it provides a way to explore the complex relationship between an artist and their context. At the end of Things Fall Apart, for example, “Return to Innocence Lost” explores the effects of domestic violence on its victims – and for that alone its an important statement in a genre of music all too often profiting from the denigration of women. Yet, the spoken word performed by Ursala Rucker also extends the motif of hip-hop as lover. The father in the narrative represents a self-hating, destructive and abusive masculinity that has marred hip-hop as a form of music. The motif continues to inform, as it confronts us with the violence that emerges among oppressed peoples, within impoverished communities and between unequal persons defined by gender.
The fear that haunts Things Fall Apart is that hip-hop culture, the lover (but also mother) to Black Thought and the Roots, had been abused and defamed by forces inside and outside that culture to the extent that its innocence and goodness were lost – only to be returned by death. It’s a profound statement to speculate on the necessity of death as the only salvation of hip-hop culture at the end of a record that aspired to redeem it as an act of devotional love.
The script of the Roots’ hip-hop romance gets re-written on Phrenology – the band has started to stray. They are no longer the devoted suitor to hip-hop; they have become wanton and promiscuous. So the female voice of hip-hop opens the album, not only looking upon the state of her creation, but also wistfully reflecting on her erstwhile lover. The tension that infuses the entire album is whether the desire for newness that feeds creativity is a betrayal – of one’s self as it is defined by the relationships that make up our identity – or whether the pursuit of love as excess can lead to the creation of something new. And if that creation of something new can be done with out losing the self, hence the need to describe such a transgressive album as a return to the roots of hip-hop. The self is a transgression of itself so long as it continues to love, to have a creative spark.
Does our love allows us to find something in the way of things that is our own, made new though desire and devotion? Can we still find a place for ourselves while engaged in the work of world making? Is there space in love to be both safe and free?
It is this examination of creativity (of world making) that brings love into politics, particularly the difficulty of thinking and acting creatively in our contemporary condition – its intolerable cruelties and its potential for transformation. In their own way the Roots are exemplary world makers, not only for their skill, but also as a black hip-hop band, as men who have been presumed to lack worldliness. Historically, cultures of white supremacy have operated on the axiom that other peoples lacked the ability to make the world meaningful – with their thought, with their art, with their science and even with their bodies. More recently, cultural critics of limited aural capacity have presumed that hip-hop is not meaningful music; it is parasitic on true (read “white”) creativity. The ideas that motivate Phrenology put the lie to any such mythologies.
This is seen in the allusion to the pseudo-science of phrenology in the album’s title and art work. Phrenology was one of many “scientific” discourses that cultures of white supremacy used to establish the inferiority of non-European peoples through their biological characteristics. Phrenology held that the heads of black Africans were underdeveloped and malformed, and they were most certainly not like white European heads.
The Roots play on this legacy. Phrenology’s cover (see above) depicts a “hip-hop head”, both as the slang for fan/aficionado of the genre and a black African-American mind, which is distinctive and unique, rather than a degraded copy. Phrenology, at least in this context, is transformed into a study of the hip-hop mind/culture and an exploration of its creative possibilities. The record is the documentation of the creative potency of a band entering new territory and reaching artistic maturity. In that maturity the Roots also become more politically aware, their horizons begin to expand beyond the Philadelphia ghettos they know and the racist oppression of America they chaffed against from the beginning. They present an underlying political question alongside their artistic pursuit of newness: how does one live well (live creatively and with love) in a world built upon the human tragedies of racism, sexism and poverty?
The Threat of Miscegenation
You ready for the freakiest things you done in ya life?
Miscegenation and the fears it generates are at the root of all love. At the physical level the creation of new life involves pulling apart two genomes in the uncertain hope that the mixing of materials can form a new organism. Falling in love puts our selves at risk by incorporating another in our self, while allowing our lover to take something from us. The need to control that act of transgression generates social norms infused with intense energies, as the love of individuals implicates the wider social worlds we move in. Crossing racial boundaries in the name of love undermines the hierarchies that make cultures of white supremacy possible – it unmakes one world even as it makes another. This dynamic is always present in relationships of desire and love, and the Roots grab this electrified cultural wire with both hands. Miscegenation as the desire for impurity at the core of love reveals that love as a social bond is a paradox we attempt to live. Fidelity cuts off the fertility of the self; miscegenation promises unknown newness. The only hope of holding the paradox together is if both lovers can be selves in constant flux – hip-hop as an art is perhaps uniquely capable of this. Part stolen, part inherited, part created, hip-hop is a culture without purity but defined by devotion.
More than on any other Roots album, on Phrenology Black Thought plays the role of hip-hop Lothario. To inattentive ears this may seem a regress, but I want to suggest something much more complex underlies the sexual themes that recur throughout the album. In the past, Black Thought was always the loyal suitor to his respected lover (hip-hop), his advances and promises moral braggadocio – in his verses here he’s unleashed a more wild spirit that is seeking not just new erotic encounters but to cross lines of identity.
From the first track (“Rock You“) Black Thought is boasting that hip-hop can no longer contain him, his powers exceed it; he is breaking frames, disintegrating syllables, evolving – and he “will rock you!” Itself a telling refrain from a band that reminded their listeners in the liner notes of Things Fall Apart that Rock n’ Roll was an African American invention. The Roots are quite literally intending to “rock” hip-hop music – in the sense of causing “great shock or distress to (someone or something), esp. so as to weaken or destabilize them or it” (Oxford Dictionary) – never more directly than in the sudden hard-core punk blast of “!!!!!!!!”, which is the second track on the album.
“Seed 2.0” is the centrepiece of the album and Cody Chestnutt’s chorus, which celebrates infidelity and the blurring of artistic (and racial) boundaries, declares:
I push my seed in her bush for life, / Its gonna work because I’m pushing it right. / If Mary drops my baby girl tonight / I would name her “Rock-n-roll.”
– Cody Chestnutt, “Seed 2.0”
This is no simple untamed black masculinity celebrated in song; the lyrics reflect the band’s effort to discover new musical worlds, as well as a more general truth. Fidelity and commitment are virtues that constrain; they tie the world together rather than opening it up. For the Roots, who ended their previous album pondering the question of whether hip-hop music and culture could only be saved (returned to innocence) in death, taking the risk of crossing identities is a matter of artistic survival.
In “Seed 2.0”, the unfaithful lover seeks out the “opposition” – his own lover’s enemy – because she doesn’t use contraception, she’s able to bear the transgressive offspring, the babygirl named “Rock ‘n Roll”. This act not only returns hip-hop its innocence, it recreates the act of miscegenation that made hip-hop possible. And this is the two-way current of energy that miscegenation unleashes, in the traditional American fear of racial mixing it is not only the white woman who is at risk, the black man risks more than violent social approbation being acted upon his body, he risks his own identity, mixing it with his oppressor.
The risks we take with dangerous love are centre stage in the come-on track “Break You Off”. Black Thought is messing with his Bad Misses, who herself is risking her relationship and her morals, as is Black Thought – and both of the unfaithful lovers are hurting the man back home. The reward? Beyond the obvious pleasure, a form of transcendence and renewal.
Bad Misses throwing raspberry kisses on me. / You looking for direction? Girl, I feel your vision on me. / Just don’t let him see you sweatin’; we ain’t suppose to be involved. / Knowing when we get it off, girl, I mean it all. / Keeping you fiending ’til you taking it tossed / And when I’m breaking it off, its no denying the fact it’s wrong, / Cause you got a man who’s probably playing his part, / You probably breaking his heart, he trying to figure the reason you gone. / Is it because he’s superficial, or is he too submissive? / Or did I come along and hit you with the futuristic? / Or is it cause you really couldn’t see a future with him? / All he about is paper, never took the time with you to listen, / You want it gripped up, flipped, and thrown / And get stripped and shown the way to get in the zone. / The cost? Dealing with this you won’t be takin’ a loss. / You need to leave him alone and roll with the one who’s breaking you off.
– Black Thought, “Break You Off”
Potency and the Loss of Self
My microphone will make a man a newborn infant.
What is preserved by trying to bring together urges for fidelity and miscegenation is the potency of creativity – the ability to put oneself into the world and find new spaces, make new noises, touch new bodies. Unbridled creativity, potency, risks the loss of identity – creativity as the negation of the self. In “Sacrifice“, Black Thought brags that he is
The catalyst, Thought with the knack for splashin’. / I’m dashin’, I mastered the craft of mashin’, / the level-headed thoroughbred, the female’s passion. / Magnetic attraction be keepin’ them askin’. / The crews in the Cadillac with the Pendergrass in./ Swerve half-naked, won’t come near crashin’, / But if I go to heaven, would y’all know my name, / Or would it be the same for you like I was Eric Clapton, huh?
He’s courting disaster but finding ways to redirect the energy of potency by reaffirming a remade identity – not a new final identity, but one to be constantly remade. The self constantly sacrificed to creativity but reaffirmed by commitment.
Clap for your freedom dog, that’s what’s happening. My spit take critical political action. / The hustle is a puzzle each piece is a fraction and every word that’s understood is a transaction. / I’m an SP soldier, microphone holder, rep Philly’s set from Bolivia to Boulder, / Paris, France to Tif and Tioga, how we gonna make it through the dark? I show ya.”
When we are filled with desire we become shape-shifters, taking on any form that connects us to the object of our desire. For the Roots this involves an expansion beyond traditional hip-hop identities and desires. Black Thought is a comic book hero, an Egyptian polymath, an actor, a travelling superstar seeking and achieving freedom.
I’m like Aquaman and Brown Hornet. / I’m like Imhotep but don’t flaunt it. / Dog, reintroducing master thespian / Ho-telling-est, illin-est, emceein. / Fuck getting money, for real, get freedom.
– Black Thought, “Thought @ Work”
Newly empowered by ceasing to be himself, Black Thought renegotiates his marriage to hip-hop. In “Seed 2.0” he speculates on what hip-hop wants from the child she’s expecting. He doesn’t ridicule the desire for material reward but contrasts it with self-realisation.
Knocked up 9 months ago / And what she finna have, she don’t know. / She want neo-soul, this hip-hop is old, / She don’t want no rock-n-roll. / She want platinum or ice or gold. / She want a whole lot of something to fold. / If you an obstacle she just drop you cold / Cause one monkey don’t stop the show. / Little Mary is bad. / In these streets she done ran / Ever since when the heat began. / I told the girl: “look here / Calm down, I’m ‘a hold your hand / To enable you to peep the plan / Cause you is quick to learn / And we can make money to burn / If you allow me to lay this game.” / I don’t ask for much but enough room to spread my wings / And the world finna know my name
What results is a new creation, a new style, because we’ve found enough room to spread our wings and this newness will be announced to the world.
Give birth to a style and won’t give it a name. / Talk ’bout consciousness, it’s a different thang. / Envision again, the honorable ‘Riq, general Hannibal speak / The understandable diabolique, animal style / Out of your dreams, kid. You proud that you seen this / Fifth supreme linguist, a lyrical genius, / Inject you with the broke down English.
– Black Though, “Quills”
But the newness, the child without a name, that is announced is transgressive, both animal and diabolic. Black Thoughts offspring, however, is a product of his superior and awe inspiring lyrical genius with broke down English. The potency of this genius is not broken but rather his genius is to break down the language so as to make it fit for purpose – as any given identity (totality) must be if its potential is to be realised.
Finding Your Way in the Way of Things
Weighted by the gravity law, you’d know it if you came up poor.
Every creator has a fear of how their creation will be received; every parent worries what the world will do to their loved offspring. What does the order of things do to the new, including the new selves, lovers, friends, children and worlds we learn to cherish? In the monumental “Water” the Roots reflect on former member Malik B’s struggle with drug addiction. There’s no condemnation of his choices but an awareness of the harsh realities of the world, the way a creative life exposes you to risks and the difficulty of overcoming our fears, which then form into dependencies.
You know we made of everything outlaws are made of – I’m far from a hater. / And I don’t say I love you cause the way I feel is greater. / And Mila’, you a poet, son, you a born creator. / And this’ll probably dawn on you later, / it’s in your nature, lyrics all on your walls like they made of paper.
– Black Thought, “Water”
The initial track, addressing Malik’s dependence, focuses on the difficult of getting over the water, which is a metaphor for madness and exploration. The challenge is how to preserve the self through the breaking down that’s a consequence of potency, miscegenation, love – this vulnerability can lead to breakdown, especially in a world that’s so unkind and unjust. Injustice isn’t even a condition that needs to be proved anymore, we accept its existence and in so doing accept it as a condition, but how do we overcome this? The second half of “Water” is an abstract sound poem, starting with a heartbeat and the sounds of moving liquid, it is by turns ambient, dissonant, repetitive and hypnotic – the sound of struggle, perhaps.
This morning when you got there and it was quiet / And the machines were yearning soft behind you. / Yearning for that nigga to come and give up his life. / Standin’ there bein’ dissed and broke and troubled. / But I see something in the way of things. / Something to make us stumble, / Something get us drunk from noise and addicted to sadness. / I see something and feel something stalking us / Like an ugly thing floating at our back calling us names. / You see it and hear it too.
-Amiri Baraka, “Something in the Way of Things (In Town)”
The world and the self seem completely separate as the way of things presses against us, but it also feels like an extension of our will in the moment of creativity. Amiri Baraka’s poem reveals the way in which the way of things is partly our own creation, even if we create it by disavowing it, refusing to look at it and name it. He calls for confrontation, with our capitulation to the way of things and with the capitulation of others. The Roots in the end offer a kind of radicalised love, an assertive love willing to fight, to defend itself – even if that requires transgressive and illegal means.
In “Quills” Black Thought conceives his art as a bomb to be thrown into the order of things – he returns to the motif of dynamite and idols from Things Fall Apart.
Yo, I hold the mic that could be thrown as a pipe bomb. / Bring it just to sling it at your favorite icon. / Thing about my music is it ain’t shit like y’all’s.
And again, in “Seed 2.0”, Cody Chestnutt refuses to wallow and instead admits his skill at taking what he needs to preserve himself.
I don’t beg from no rich man, / And I don’t scream and kick / When his shit don’t fall in my hands, man, / Cause I know how to steal. / Fertilize another against my lover’s will. / I lick the opposition cause she don’t take no pill. / Oh, oh, oh no, dear. / You’ll be keeping my legend alive.
So, the transgressive nature of creativity and love, of desire and potency, may take us all the way to violence and criminality. This turn to the unethical, however, reveals the duality of such notions, if the way of things is unjust and violent, as the world cannot be remade without a new moment of violence and injustice, violent and unjust for those currently privileged. Yet this creative resistance, motivated by desire and love, needs to be conducted in community with others, which is why for all his wayward behaviour, Black Thought finds himself tied to hip-hop still, but trying to find a way for their love to be a space of freedom and safety at the same time.
I used to come into the party and stand around / Cuz I was kinda too shy to really get down. / I used to play the corner and watch the scene, / Deep down knowing I wanted to find me a queen / And I could feel that in my stomach and up in my chest / Because I knew a lot of women, and some was fresh . But then I found you girl, and just like me / You had a heart that was yearning to be set free. / Now listen, see you and me we need to take the time / To erase any doubt that’s inside your mind / It’s not a mountain that I’m ever too tired to climb / And who’s counting, but I know at least a thousand times / I let you know I’m here for you, care for you, and confide in you / Break bread, share with you, and provide for you. / And that’s full time, it’s no 9 to 5 with you. / That’s why I’m trying to work it out with you, it’s gonna work.