Revisiting: The Roots – Illadelph Halflife

“Revisiting”  will be a monthly feature focusing on returning to and reviewing a “classic” album.  

After one listen to How I Got Over, it was apparent to me that the legendary crew from the 215 had made a return to glory. Say what you want but, Rising Down was a dissappointment. The first half was raw and energetic but the remaining songs, with the exception of “Rising Up”, were misguided at best. Like Marcus so eloquently stated, How I Got Over, is a cohesive effort. From start to finish, it plays out like a soundtrack to the perils of inner city life leaving the listener with the promise of hope and motivation (see: “The Fire” and “Now or Never”). Rewind back to 1996 where ostentatious and over indulgent tunes began to dominate the airwaves and somewhere amongst the glitz, glamour and fraudelent tales of mafia life, stood Illadelph Halflife.

Hip Hop has always been a genre in which style supercedes substance but beginning in 1996 groups like The Roots, De La and OutKast began to challenge the norm. Illadelph Halflife, a barrage of brash lyricism and artistry, was a potent response to the flimsy content that began to infiltrate hip hop. Black Thought, Malik B. and ?uestlove, led the band and the listener through a 70 minute crusade to rid hip hop of its unoriginal, deeply pretentious clones.

It begins with Black Thought urging his hip hop peers to ditch the phony mafia personas and return to the original artform of MC’ing with “Respond React”. They waste little time getting to what they do best, and that’s giving listeners a glimpse of life from the perspective of young Philadelphians. The next four songs do just that, with the pinnacle being “Episodes”. Equipped with a mellow, narrative-inducing backdrop Black Thought peers out of his bedroom window to carefully describe a scene of drug abuse, prostitution and violence. Dice Raw and Malik each contribute equally vivid verses making “Episodes” a highlight of the first 20 minutes of the album.

To further prove that they can tackle the same issues as their hip hop peers without using trite and unoriginal concepts, “What They Do”, as Black says, serves as a dedication to the “one dimensional, no imagination, excuse for perpetratin'”. The video, a parody of hip hop videos of that time, remains one of the most creative visuals in hip hop’s recent memory. “Clones” doubles as both a midway and turning point for the album, shifting the theme from poignant tales of street life to old fashion mc’ing. They pick up Common and Q-Tip along the way, to contribute their unique voices to “UNIverse at War” and “Ital”. “The Great Pretender” proves Malik is fully capable of maintaining the listeners interest without the help of his often masterful counterpart Black Thought. Infused amongst the Philly street tales and energetic lyricism are interludes tieing the album together with the help of beatboxing, spoken word poetry and even contemporary elements of  jazz.

Along with De La’s Stakes is High, of the same year, Illadelph Halflife stood as a defense against the contagious evils that were threatening to destroy the artform. Much like the albums outro suggests, The Roots were at the time and still remain a bit of an enigma; a hip hop band that despite being signed to a major label, has been able to defy the coporate model and push the boundaries of hip hop. 1996’s Illadelph Halflife and today’s How I Got Over show a band of persistent outsiders determined to unsuspectedly carve their own mark in hip hop history as a voice for the unapologetic, challenging and creative artists.