First things first, I’d be remiss if I didn’t start this post by saying rest in peace to Artis Leon Ivey Jr., better known to the world as Coolio. From your earlier work with W.C. and The M.A.A.D Circle to your tremendous solo career, thank you for your significant contribution to hip-hop and the culture.
The last time we checked in with The Roots was on their 1995 sophomore effort, Do You Want More?!!!??! The album wasn’t an immediate commercial success (it took twenty years for it to earn a gold plaque), nonetheless, it would slowly become a critical darling and even to this day is one of my favorite albums in The Roots dense and highly quality catalog. Led by Questlove on the drums and Black Thought on the mic, The Roots would return in ‘96 (making a few alterations to the band; most notably, Kamal Gray would replace the soon to be superstar producer, Scott Storch on keys) with their third release, Illadelph Halflife.
Since their debut album Organix, The Roots have used a continuous track numbering format on their albums, with Illadelph containing tracks 34 through 53. The Roots’ albums (at least prior to 2010) have also had great liner notes, filled with nerdy tidbits, a little self-deprecation and amusing inside jokes (some that you’re invited into once you listen to the album, and others that will tickle you even though you remain an outsider to the jokes). Illadelph (which is The Roots’ slang for their hometown, Philadelphia) would render three solid singles, even though they made little noise on the charts, and like its predecessor, it didn’t put up big sales numbers, but it received great reviews and heaps of critical acclaim, including a spot on The Source’s 1998 list of 100 Best Rap Albums.
It’s been a hot minute since I’ve listened to Illadelph, so this should be a fun refresher. Rest in peace to Malik B and Leonard “Hub” Hubbard.
Intro – The album opens with a collage of soundbites, which the liner notes say were taken from an audio documentary called “Hip-hop 101; On The Road With The Roots,” which features clips from the likes of Dr. Cornel West, Chuck D, Harry Allen and Questlove.
Respond/React – The Roots waste no time getting things jumpin’, as the band whips up an energetic mid-tempo bop (which includes some dope inconspicuous harp plucks courtesy of a Julia Haines) that finds Black Thought (aka The Bad Lieutenant) and Malik B (aka The M-Ill-itant) shredding the microphones and emcees, simultaneously, with witty battle-ready bars and razor-sharp lyricism. From Thought’s opening bar that finds him introducing himself as “The attractive assassin” to Malik’s closing verse where he threatens to “take away your last breath when you got asthma,” this was fire. I wish an emcee or crew would have reacted or responded to this shit.
Section – If my memory serves me correct, this was the first song off Illadelph that I ever heard while playing on a late-night radio show around my way back in the day. Quest and the gang create a cool groove that Thought mutilates with the smoothness of The Fonz, leaving Malik to salvage what’s left of the mic on the second verse, before he returns with the collars on his butter leather fully popped to tell you what he and Malik’s purpose on the mic is. I have no idea what the “Luther Van, lyrical contraband” is, but dammit, Thought makes it sound cool as hell. This one still sounds great twenty-five plus years later.
Panic!!!!! – Over subdued but urgent instrumentation, Thought gets off a quick verse about being awaken just after midnight (twelve seventeen to be exact) by “shots and sirens” (or “sireens”) in his South Philly hood. Obviously, this was recorded years before Thought and the group started gettin’ them steady Jimmy Fallon checks and were able to get up out of those crime infested Philly streets.
It Just Don’t Stop – The dark instrumentation and uber pessimistic hook would lead you to believe the verses on this song would be filled with gloom and doom. And while some of Malik and Thought’s rhymes are dimly lit, Malik balances the dark and heavy with a few light-hearted battle bars. It’s not the strongest song on the album, but it makes for a solid album cut.
Episodes – Sticking with the dark vibes from the previous two songs, Thought and Malik are joined by Dice Raw, as the three take turns addressing the crime and senseless acts of violence in the Philly streets, while the Jazzyfatnastees and Fatin add mournful harmonies in between the verses to accentuate the already somber feel of the track.
Push Up Ya Lighter – Our hosts change the mood from dark to grey with this melodically serene backdrop that sounds like the perfect music for a cold wintery Midwest Monday morning. Thought and Malik continue to touch on Philly’s violence issues, but from a more optimistic perspective (at least Thought’s rhymes are), while fellow Philadelphian, Bahamadia swings by to get off her shit and flex her “anti-gangsta bitch” rhetoric. This was dope.
What They Do – This was the third single released from Illadelph. Quest lays down Ummah issued drums, Kamal tickles the keys, Hub provides the irresistible bass line, someone named Spanky (whom the liner notes hi-lariously credits for his “Wes Mongomeration”) gets off seductive guitar licks, Angela Slates and Raphael Saadiq sing the hook, and Black Thought indirectly disses all phony, materialistic, one-dimensional rappers, while offering a free clinic on wordplay, word connection and flow: “The principles of true hip-hop have been forsaken, it’s all contractual and about money makin’, pretend to be cats don’t seem to know they limitation, exact replication and false representation, you wanna be a man? Then stand your own, to emcee requires skills, I demand some shown.” This is a slept-on classic that is just as relevant today as it was twenty-six years ago.cl
? Vs Scratch – This short interlude finds Questlove playing a simple drum beat and Scratch (from the School of Thought) gettin’ his Rahzel on, cuttin’ up the ones and twos with his vocals. The liner notes hi-lariously parenthesize the song title as “The Token DJ Cut.”
Concerto Of The Desperado – For single number two off Illadelph, the band creates a classical atmosphere, punctuated by epic cello plucks courtesy of Hubbard. The music sets the mood for Black Thought (the Desperado), who starts the song out on some poetic shit (“In the glow of the moon, over the melancholy metro”) and quickly shifts gears, transforming into the unorthodox hip-hop minister who preaches a boastful sermon to son emcees and ultra-magnetize the brains of his listeners: The Desperado, that refuse to follow, the Fifth aficionado, break you up into parts like vibrato, I’m deep like the dark of the night, niggas is sweet and sound silly when they talk on the mic, they use simple back-and-forth the same, old rhythm that’s plain, I’d rather ultra-magnetize your brain, it’s the hip-hop purist, to leave you lost like a tourist, inside the chorus, niggas is bringing nothing for us, as we breakin’ ‘em down to fraction, tell your squadron, it’s time to go to war, respond/react once more.” Shoutout to the beautiful Amel Larrieux, who licks her opera chops and sprinkles those high octaves all over this sensational track. This is easily my favorite record on Illadelph and possibly in my top ten Roots joints of all-time.
Clones – This was the lead single from Illadelph and probably the grimiest record in The Roots entire catalog. M.A.R.S. and Dice Raw join Black Thought and Malik B for this Philly cipher session that’s backed by Quest’s hard drums and incredible drum rolls in between the verses that sound like he’s spraying the crowd with an automatic weapon (which I’m sure is why the liner notes credit him for the “hi-hat and triggers”). All parties involved turn in solid performances (with BT’s shining the brightest, of course), making for an entertaining posse record.
UNIverse At War – Common stops by to join Thought on this duet that on paper reads to be a cerebrally impressive record, but in real time it sounds drab as hell, thanks mainly to the extremely dry and extraordinary boring instrumentation.
No Alibi – The band whips up a smooth slightly somber groove for Malik and Tariq to let their stream of consciousness flow, and after Malik forms a puddle, Thought uses the next two verses to create a fuckin’ ocean (that “Evelyn Champagne King” line was ridiculous sick!).
Dave Vs. US – A quick interlude that has Quest and Rahzel squaring up with saxophonist, Dave Murray on some inside joke shit.
No Great Pretender – Finally, Malik gets a solo joint that finds him dissin emcees, dreaming of buying out Tommy (Hilfiger) and Helly Hansen, while plotting to kidnap America and give it to Tariq to hold for ransom. Unfortunately, Malik’s outshined by Rahzel’s brilliant verbal drums and horns.
The Hypnotic – BT uses the drowsy jazz instrumentation (that sounds perfectly suited for an afterhours jazz lounge) to share a story about a girl he was once infatuated with, named Alana (whom he cleverly credits for “lubricatin’ his meridian points” with great massages). Over time, Thought loses touch with her and later finds out she lost her life after becoming a “victim of the wicked system that controlled her.” D’Angelo drops in to add his signature falsetto vocals on the adlibs, adding to the already melancholic vibes of the track. I’ve never cared much for this one. The music feels sleepy and something about Thought’s story feels hollow and contrived.
Ital (The Universal Side) – Thought and Q-Tip (Tribe Degrees of Separation: check) join forces on this jewel-filled duet that finds a primed Q-Tip spewing rhymes full of sage wisdom and Tariq focused on schooling lesser emcees with super sharp stanzas. Quest and the band provide a soulful groove for the two talented emcees to get their dazzle on, completing this sensational record.
One Shine – According to the liner notes, this jam session was pieced together from several different sessions between 1993 and 1996. Along with a plethora of musicians, this spacious cool jazz mash up also features Cassandra Wilson, Amel Larrieux and Questlove’s dad, Lee Andrews aka “Poppa ?uestion” (rip). This song sounds a bit misplaced (more suitable for an elevator or customer service hold music), but I enjoyed it in a regal kind of way.
The Adventures In Wonderland – Over ultra-mellow instrumentation, Ursula Rucker keeps an early Roots’ album tradition and gets off an album closing spoken word poem. The last (and first) time we heard from Ms. Rucker on a Roots album, she came (no pun intended) from the perspective of an angry pussy poppin’ recipient of an eight-man train, only to turn around and pop all eight of the “shriveled cock men” (her words, not mine) afterwards. This time around, she shares a poem from the eyes of a struggling single mother turned crack dealer, who ends up paying the price for living that risky lifestyle. She also manages to make a “pussy” and “cock” reference in this poem as well.
Outro – The album ends with, who I think is Cornel West, talking about The Roots being “a little bit of an enigma,” due to the fact they’ve reached the level of their dreams (a major record deal and international notoriety), but their jazz hip-hop band concept still hadn’t blown up, to which Dr. West bleakly ends the album saying, “it is possible it won’t.”
Dr. West’s assessment of The Roots being “a bit of an enigma” was accurate in ‘96 and has remained true throughout their career. They’re a group who are respected by all yet underappreciated by most. They’ve never experienced consistent commercial success, yet they’ve consistently put out quality music, compiling a blue-collar catalog that should be revered more than it is, and Illadelph Halflife serves as the perfect evidence to support that argument.
On Illadelph, The Roots stick to the same organic jazz hip-hop fundamentals that they followed on their previous two albums, but this time around the music feels a little darker and more focused, while Black Thought and Malik’s content touches on more serious topics, giving balance to their boastful bars, lighthearted freestyles and verbal jabs at superficial emcees that they deem lesser. Speaking of Black Thought, he continues to blossom into (on my list) the GOAT he would soon become, as his delivery sounds more polished and refined than prior, the bars and wordplay are more chiseled, and his ability to suavely bend words as he purposely mispronounces them, along with his overall mastery of the English language, is alien like. And Malik B makes for a quality B-mic.
Illadelph does come with a few underwhelming moments (i.e., “UNIverse” and “The Hypnotic”), but those blemishes are easily overlooked when the overall body of work is this gorgeously entertaining. Illadelph’s a classic album and a key component in The Roots’ legendary underdog legacy.
Consistently excellent one of the most underrated hip hop groups. I love this album & most of their others.
Salute. Concierto Of The Desperado is my favorite The Roots song.
Also Clones was believed to be a diss to Biggie I believe
Really? I never heard that theory. I’ve heard “What They Do” (specifically the video) was a subliminal for Puffy’s Bad Boy roster.