The Roots boast as much credibility as anyone in hip-hop, but the downside to authenticity is that fans are quick to call foul at the first sign of commercial calculation. Consequently, the Philly collective's last two discs, Phrenology and The Tipping Point, both suffered from singles ("Break You Off" and "Don't Say Nuthin'," respectively) that some fans considered blatant ploys for mainstream radio and video attention. Phrenology recovered from such accusations, but The Tipping Point wasn't so lucky: Even ?uestlove underrates it.
So it's tempting to view Game Theory, the group's gritty Def Jam debut, and especially its first single, "Don't Feel Right," as a corrective to Tipping Point's crossover dreams. With its haunting piano, neck-snapping drums, tormented soul wails, paranoid lyrics, and lack of big-name guests, "Don't Feel Right" seems immune to the sellout accusations that dogged previous Roots singles. In fact, it initially sounds like a solid album track rather than a knockout single. But subsequent listens reveal additional layers of depth, sonically and lyrically.
So does Game Theory, which initially feels like a stylistic retreat, a stripped-down return to basics after the rock-influenced weirdness of Phrenology and the pop concessions of Tipping Point. But especially in its superior second half, the album resonates with casual ambition as it reconciles ?uestlove's effortless bohemian cool and sonic perfectionism with Black Thought's dark swagger, street-level sociology, and silver-tongued virtuosity. And though it seems intended as a response to Tipping Point, Game Theory shares many of its predecessors' virtues, especially its concise running time and lack of filler. (Apart from the touching but extended tribute to Jay Dee.) It would be tempting to call Game Theory a comeback or a return to form, but the truth is that The Roots didn't go anywhere.