For Black Thought, it all really started with his prologue on “Essawahmah.” In the early 1990s, when recording companies and mainstream media thought they’d figured out hip-hop via the popularity of its most beloved torchbearers, he drastically flipped the script. The track from the Roots’ 1993 debut Organix (a precursor to the later “Essaywhuman?!!!??!”) kicks off with a casual back-and-forth between the band and their audience, reminiscent of the ambiance from Gil Scott-Heron’s conversational songs on Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. The energy is lighthearted and the mood easygoing, until the lead MC decides to shake things up and introduce himself to the uninitiated. What follows is some beatboxing, scatting, vocal riffs, more scatting, more beatboxing, trading fours with the band, all the while telling you a story. It’s about hip-hop, jazz, collaboration, Philadelphia, and everything in between Black artistry and corporate America. What began on Organix arrived on 1995’s Do You Want More?!!!??!, now reissued in 3xLP and 4xLP packages. But the album title wasn’t really a question—it was more of a dare challenging you to say no, because how could you not want to hear the rest? And when you did listen, could you handle it?
The thing about the very best writers, whether Gayl Jones or Toni Morrison, Kiese Laymon or Jesmyn Ward, Paul Beatty or Ta-Nehisi Coates, is that their introductions never waver in clarity or intention. They reveal characters whose journeys take readers into places that force us to forget our own centers, to spend time in the universe of others. To be a good writer, storytelling chops are essential; a non-negotiable requirement. In music, mediocre characters can be shielded behind flamboyant production, drawing your ear to the magician’s assistant so you don’t perceive the sleight of hand. Black Thought is not a magician. He’s an alchemist who’s spent a large part of his career mutating the ephemera of memory into tangible reminders of life, connecting everything, always, back to the root.
The 16 tracks on the 1995 version of Do You Want More?!!!??! run like a good book that you want to get through immediately, but because you need to savor each moment, you force yourself to take your time. His literary intentions are ferocious on “I Remain Calm,” where he fires shots at anyone delivering average or merely good bars: “My rated-X larynx wrecks your context/I’m complex, confusin’, lyrically amusin’/I drink brews then when I’m groovin’/I’m no longer human.” He carries these bold claims of superiority forward into the album’s title track, which reads like a more unruly “Ego Tripping,” echoing Nikki Giovanni’s boastful bravado and always backing it up; different sides of the same literary coin.
Storytelling can be a lonely endeavor, but it’s rarely a solitary one, and while Black Thought tells his own stories, the Roots crew is the echo transmitting his words beyond the scope of any one individual. With ?uestlove on the drums and any other place where soul needs a melody, Black Thought has a reliable anchor. From their very first album, the drummer and joint frontman has written and produced alongside his childhood friend, lending a special gravitas to the idea of “coming up together.” Do You Want More?!!!??! could be read as a question between friends, each urging the other to take more artistic liberties, to up the ante with each level surpassed.
“The Lesson, Pt. 1,” a brief rundown of a life on the margins, is the pair at their most revealing; it sounds like a tentative prequel to Undun, which would be released in 2011. Here, Black Thought brought a different type of cold steel up to his face for protection. Both are heavy in different ways: the weight of taking a life or that of trying to save one with the words projected from your mic. It’s a battle of survivor’s remorse, filled with the gratitude immortalized in essayist Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s Politico essay on the group. “Most people from my neighborhood are just surprised they live to be 30,” Black Thought told Ghansah. “I know I was. And to see the world, to survive, I know I was lucky, I know I was saved.”
On “Lazy Afternoon,” we hear Black Thought’s monologue about the delicate joy of being alive. It’s a theme that flows through the work of artists who grew up to see themselves as the blessed ones who made it through the battlefield. While Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” summarizes a dreamy 24 hours, “Lazy Afternoon” moves like a line-by-line breakdown on the luxury of leisure.
We see him at his most vulnerable on “Silent Treatment,” which sounds like reading aloud a love letter written by someone with nothing to say except “I fucked up.” His tone moves from matter-of-fact to begrudging acceptance of reality, and then dejection. It’s something very few can replicate. At times, Black Thought’s reiterations that he is the best around mean the album starts to lag, but some things really do bear repeating. And for naysayers, the subtext is clear: If you think I am wrong, show me somebody better. Someone who can take a song that flows atop a reggae beat, lyrics that invoke obscure music moments from fellow hip-hop heads (Digable Planets), and coherently turn Afrika Bambaataa and Joe into adjectives, coloring a song about neither person.
Black Thought meets his lyrical equal when Malik B. comes to the page to “write an anthem, throw a tantrum and remain handsome.” Both are sinister narrators on “Distortion to Static,” outlining the truth in all its ugliness without losing sight of the desperation that leads to violence. They go toe-to-toe on “Proceed,” reliving childhood shenanigans and reveling in the spotlight of self-made success. Band member Leonard Hubbard, on bass, and collaborators Steven Coleman, Graham Haynes, and Joshua Roseman, on the saxophone, trumpet, and trombone, respectively, bring a cool jazz sensibility to the album, flowing with the steady production of ?uestlove, who evokes the physicality of a classic turntable set: scratching, connection with the audience, and the performance appeal of a cypher.
That concept of creating within a community is where the Roots are uniquely unmatched. Hip-hop has often elevated a sole figure supported by a behind-the-scenes team, and yet for the majority of their career the Roots have worked with over a dozen artists whose musicianship is as diverse as their artistic impulses. “Essaywhuman” (not to be confused with “Essawahmah”) is a prime example of this musical curation. Coleman is having so much fun on the sax it breeds both shoe-throwing annoyance and awe, while Hubbard, on bass, strums along at the same frequency as the riled-up live crowd. With Scott Storch on the keyboard, the whole show becomes not only a performance by a hip-hop group, but a type of orchestral fusion, syncing elements you might expect on stage at Carnegie Hall alongside those you would see and hear on a basketball court in Philadelphia.
Do You Want More?!!!??! showcased the Lead MC at home, at ease with his ability to sink his pen deep into the hidden truths of power, belonging, survival, and hustle. These truths related to his hometown and the legacy of art-making of which he is part. The stories of Philadelphia have only ever truly been distilled by writers who intentionally focused on the city, tracing the source of the intuitive innovation that emerges so fearlessly from those who call it home. The flight of Allen Iverson, the ecstatic sorrow of Patti LaBelle, the sensual nods of Teddy Pendergrass have never been fully articulated by outsiders. But when Black Thought steps to the mic, he is able to translate the very best of his kin. Zoom in on his layered storytelling and get a picture of a breathing, healing, and fighting city, an endless ledger of change documented by its scribe and hometown boy.
Buy: Rough Trade
(Pitchfork earns a commission from purchases made through affiliate links on our site.)
Catch up every Saturday with 10 of our best-reviewed albums of the week. Sign up for the 10 to Hear newsletter here.