The Roots' excellent new album, Phrenology (MCA), expected in stores this summer, was delayed by problems with the first single, "Break You Off." Neosoul singer Musiq Soulchild, who cowrote the tune and was set to record it with the band, was denied permission by his label, Def Jam. So D'Angelo, whose breakthrough album, Voodoo, benefited greatly from the input of Roots mastermind and drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, recorded a version--but then backed out because he "didn't want to be the guy on the commercial Roots song." (The Roots have taken a few subsequent shots at the recently arrested singer on their Web site, okayplayer.com: "Not so great news: There won't be any 'Free D'Angelo' T-shirts available" and "Not so great news: If D'Angelo's version of the song was cleared, the chorus would be changed to 'Coming to break you out.'") The band offered the gig to numerous other singers before Musiq finally got the legal go-ahead. For all that trouble, the mellow single, which was in fact a concession to the group's label, is the least interesting and least representative track on an album that takes all sorts of exciting chances. In a recent feature in GQ, Thompson claims that prior to going into the studio, the Roots made a list of all the styles they'd never tried to play and resolved to take a swing at as many of them as possible. A few of their experiments actually made it onto the album--the manic thrash of "!!!!!!!," the techno-rap hybrid of the untitled hidden track, and the charged spoken word of "Something in the Way of Things (in Town)," featuring embattled New Jersey poet laureate Amiri Baraka. And as tracks like the astonishing soul-rock stomper "The Seed" (written by and featuring the promising southern rocker Cody Chesnutt, the musician that Lenny Kravitz dreams he is) and the ambitious three-part epic "Water" (which features guitarist James "Blood" Ulmer as well as a gurgling bong) prove, the Roots remain hip-hop's most potent force. They're also its best live act; these shows will feature the group's newest member, guitarist Ben Kenney, and Chesnutt, who will be on hand for his cameo. Wednesday and Thursday, December 4 and 5, 9 PM, House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn; 312-923-2000 or 312-559-1212.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dennis DiChiaro.