“You don’t say good luck, you say don’t give up” sings John Legend in the chorus to ‘The Fire’, and it’s a perfect summary of what ‘How I Got Over‘, The Roots eleventh studio album, is all about. Just like the last two albums by Philly’s finest this one expertly captures the zeitgeist. But where the last two, birthed during the Bush administration, seemed primarily fuelled by anger, ‘HIGO‘ opens with a different sentiment. Lost, beaten down and confused about where all this hardship humanity (or is it ‘Dear God‘, after all?) seems to inflict on the world comes from. Tales of adversity over sparse production with melancholy sounds, with a role at the forefront for Kamal’s piano keys. Dice Raw delivers a plethora of soulfully sung choruses and all the guest mc’s deliver good to strong performances alongside an excellent as ever Black Thought, truly rap’s working class hero. It’s all the product of a great but far from merry band. And then it all switches up halfway through.
The title cut is where something gets added to the atmosphere, both topically and sonically, and it’s not just a singing Black Thought. “Someone has to care” is a recurring sentence through the hook of this sudden decidedly funky track, there simply has to be a light at the end of all this bleakness, right?!? There is, the album tracks smartly interlock like a real mixtape (remember those?) but is broken in two distinct parts by an instrumental Dilla tribute. And when the second part starts with Patty Crash (sounding a bit like a slightly polished Macy Gray) singing “As I wake up/ I look into the mirror/ I can see a clearer/ vision/ I should start living today” you get what this record is telling you. The rage of the Bush years is behind us now, and the Obama campaign taught us that change is possible after all, though it never comes easy. To push the Obama analogy further, even the subsequent dismantling of the fairytale is felt. Barack is a human being after all who can’t simply wish problems away, but adversities can be overcome if you persevere. It’s never preachy, or painting any grand pictures of “The American Dream”. It’s far more relatable and realistic than that, which makes it all the more powerful. The album almost closes on some straight forward high quality brag & boast rap (Web 20/20), like they found the spirit again to do this, and while it falls slightly out of tone with the rest that’s easily forgiven with another great Peedi Crakk feature. The final track (‘Hustla‘) not only proves something good can still come out of autotune (really) but speaks on a fitting hope for the future: “Please let her be a hustla, baby be a hustla/Hope my baby girl grows up to be a hustla”. Hardship can be overcome, but you have to fight for it. An inspiring message by a band who after eleven albums still aren’t afraid to reinvent themselves.