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The Roots

Game Theory (Island/Def Jam)

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No band has been more successful than the Roots at leveraging commercial endeavors to buy artistic freedom. As hip-hop's best live act, the Philadelphia collective has backed a host of mainstream stars; those gigs have given the band the cachet to cash in on its own adventurous recordings. None has traveled further afield than Game Theory: Not only is this not the mainstream breakthrough that hip-hop's most successful label may have desired; parts of it barely qualify as hip-hop. In an increasingly formulaic and inbred industry, that's a reason to celebrate.

Celebration, however, is a poor term to use about a disc this relentlessly dark. The restless "Don't Feel Right" is the first single and statement of intent; most tracks wander through a thicket of bass, guitar, and unsparing beats, with the voice of Black Thought giving anxious updates about a world and nation in turmoil, with no way out. Radiohead gets sampled on "Atonement," and the whole thing arrives as a 21st-century successor to There's a Riot Goin' On -- minus the drugs, but with Sly's inspired paranoia fully, sometimes intoxicatingly intact.

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