I find it difficult to say anything definite about this album.
“!!!!!!!” is a 30-second track that is in debt to Bad Brains and similar artists. I once appreciated it as a strange ditty, but the track is getting on my nerves as I write this review.
I initially thought “Water” was a failed attempt at progressive rap. I now believe the entire song is engrossing.
Considering how much trash lead emcee Black Thought can talk, it’s cool that The Roots are willing to recognize 230 rap artists in “WAOK (Ay) Rollcall,” but how about an actual song? (I’m thinking of Tupac’s “Old School.”)
I might have given this album an A- weeks ago. Another week I would have given it a C+. My final grade is B, but don’t let the rating say anything more than this: I’m not sure how one should take Phrenology. Even though I’m relieved that I purchased the album at a considerable discount, I can’t imagine not owning it.
Indeed, “The Seed (2.0)” is one of the best songs of the 2000s, featuring an impeccable beat from Questlove (who also did a good job of producing Phrenology) and a cool guitar riff from Cody Chesnutt, whose playing evokes a hint of indie rock behind the funk. For the vocals, Black Thought and Chesnutt merge rap and soul with rock n’ roll attitude. It’s almost like they made “The Seed (2.0)” for music lovers, but the song is too damn catchy to be pretentious.
On the same album, we get “Break You Off,” which isn’t a bad song so much as the unfortunate track that had to follow “The Seed (2.0).” Listening to the latter is an invigorating experience, but “Break You Off” is a little boring, dragging at seven minutes plus and failing to keep up with the times.
I’m disappointed Ursula Rucker isn’t used more on the album (she only speaks on two brief tracks), but at least the album’s first song, “Rock You,” kicks you in the teeth with its industrial heaviness. Hell, I can’t really complain about the album’s first half. It’s not until I finish listening to “Water” that the album becomes a chore. “Quills,” “Pussy Galore,” and “Complexity” are decent songs, but they seem lazy compared to the experimentation of earlier tracks. Unfortunately, I’ve never been interested enough to finish the spoken-word conclusion, “Something In The Way Of Things (In Town),” and even though that one hidden track with Talib Kweli is somewhat cool, I don’t like hidden tracks because, well, they’re kind of stupid. In this case, awkward silence doesn’t improve an album, even if you throw in a neat song after one minute of nothing.
Despite its faulty structure and some bland or annoying songs, Phrenology is a rewarding experience. Not even the worst song is truly bad (unless you count “!!!!!!!” as something more than a silly experiment), and the liner notes are among the best I’ve seen (a Roots hallmark). I will continue listening to it, and who knows? I might finally see it as the masterpiece or misfire that it is.