The Roots’ last outing, 2011’s Undun, was easily one of the best hip-hop albums of the year, with “hip-hop’s first legitimate band” showing that they were still a force to be reckoned with after 14 years. The song writing was genius, telling the story of tragic character Redford Stevens in reverse-chronological order, and the accompanying music was simply stunning. It was rap music at it’s very best.
Yet there is one huge difference between Undun and 2013’s Wise Up Ghost; the latter is not a hip-hop album.
When The Roots announced that they would be teaming up with Brit legend Elvis Costello for their 13th studio album, you sensed that it was not going to be ‘just another rap album’. The lack of any rapping whatsoever though means that Wise Up Ghost is in fact a funk album; and a damn good one at that.
The album begins with lead single ‘Walk Us Uptown’ and features a soulful backing. The crackling vinyl sound adds to the track’s texture and sounds as if you’ve been allowed on set during The Wire’s opening credit sequence.
Lyrically, it has very much the feel of a Roots song and it is hard to ignore Questlove’s influence on the song. “Will you walk us uptown?/And we’ll stand in the light/Of your new killing ground/And we won’t make a sound”, Elvis sings on the track’s hook.
‘Refuse To Be Saved’ is easily one of the album’s most soulful tracks and Costello thrives off the group’s masterful production. The album’s string arrangements are clearly themed and an ever-present throughout the record, Questlove’s funky beats breaking them up from time to time. What really makes this album work is the fact that The Roots are essentially a band. In an age of borrowing and sampling, here lies a hip-hop group that makes their own sound the old-fashioned way, and the end result is invigorating.
‘Wake Me Up’ is solemn from start to finish and the detailed imagery provided results in one of Wise Up Ghost‘s most powerful assets. “They dangled flags and other rags along a coloured thread of twine/They dragged that bruised and purple heart along the road to Palestine” Costello sings, clearly pained by his topic of choice. It is in the song’s final verse that Costello provides the album’s most memorable lyric. “Into the pit of sadness/Where the wretched plunge/We’ve buried all the Innocents/We must bury revenge”.
‘Stick Out Your Tongue’ and ‘Come The Meantimes’ provide the album’s most rap-like instrumentals and yet Costello never seems out of place, gliding through both with seeming ease. Yet, it is not the hip-hop element that the listener finds himself craving as the album unfolds, as you become ever more endowed by the album’s soulful wonder.
“Just because you don’t speak the language/Doesn’t mean that you can’t understand,” Costello sings on ‘Tripwire’, and in doing so provides us with a beautiful summary of Wise Up Ghost. This may not be hip-hop and it may not be the Roots album that you expected or even wanted, but that shouldn’t put you off what is a superbly crafted album.