'Phrenology' Is The Unsung Hero of The Roots' Discography

The album set in stone that the band and its surrounding communities would have a place in music history.

Cory Townes

Philadelphia’s spot in hip-hop is somewhat similar to how the city’s often viewed to the world: it's always creeping out of the shadow cast by its neighbor to the North—New York City—but never lacking in pride, passion, individuality, and creativity. The City of Brotherly Love (and Sisterly Affection) is one of a kind, and its people serve as its heartbeat, and influence its creatives, both past and present.

The city has always been home to a vibrant, colorful music community, dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the still-growing nation benefited from the city’s classical, jazz, and soul circles. One look at the Philadelphia Music Walk of Fame on Broad Street and you'll see the names of Philly natives who’ve etched their place in the halls of music history over the years: Boyz II Men, Chubby Checker, Patti LaBelle, Hall & Oates, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Gamble & Huff, Phyllis Hyman, Frankie Beverly and Maze—just to name a few.

While the luminaries of Philly music past continue to shine, that light slightly dimmed with the emergence of hip-hop and rap in the mid-to-late ‘90s and into the early aughts. Long gone were the crossover smash hits like Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith’s “Summertime.” As Philly's music scene began to shift, a renaissance was born at open mic nights and poetry slams spread across town. It borrowed its sounds from R&B, hip-hop, jazz, and that trademarked the "Sound of Philadelphia," which became Neo-Soul. And its main catalyst? A group of musicians named The Roots.

Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter and Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson were the main architects of the group that would become "The Legendary Roots Crew." It all came together in the late ‘80s at Philadelphia's High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. Trotter and Thompson's mutual love of music inspired them to create something of their own; Thompson, the percussionist and standout drummer, and Trotter, the highly talented lyricist, came together and released their debut album Organix in 1993. The group found a home at DGC/Geffen Records, and put out their first cult classic album Do You Want More?!!!??! in 1994.

The Roots became more of a social club than simply a music group; over the years, the rotated plenty of musical members. Malik B, James Poyser, Frank "Knuckles" Walker, Damon "Tuba Gooding Jr." Bryson, Kamal Gray, Captain Kirk Douglas, beatboxer Rahzel, famed producer Scott Storch, and Dice Raw were all group members over the years. Working with The Roots introduced stars like Jill Scott, Eve, and Beanie Sigel to the world. Frequent outside collaborators including Erykah Badu, Mos Def, D'Angelo, and Bilal spearheaded the movement of "The Soulquarians," creating a sense of community amongst some of the most talented artists of our time.

This dynamic sense of musicianship allowed The Roots to pull influences from their various musical backgrounds, and in that process, something new was born in Philadelphia sound—and it showed in their work. Albums like 1996's Illadelph Halflife, the group's first entry into the Billboard 200 charts and   one that gained them mainstream attention, and their breakthrough 1999 project Things Fall Apart, helped introduce the genre of Neo-Soul to the world. While many consider Things Fall Apart as The Roots' entry point to the mainstream, others will say it was their 2002 release, Phrenology, that ensured the group would no longer be looked at as somewhat of a musical novelty, but rather a tour de force in hip-hop.

Fresh off the Grammy-winning album Things Fall Apart, The Roots experienced several waves of change within the group. Several members departed to pursue solo careers, right as The Roots reached peak popularity. Right after JAY-Z tapped the crew to be the accompanying band for his legendary MTV Unplugged performance in December 2001, The Roots released Phrenology. The album was certified Gold selling over 500,000 records and earned a Grammy nod for Best Rap Album. The 16-track project further showcased the group's versatility, crafting a brand new sound and direction that emphasized The Roots' power of shaping their own narrative.

Ursula Rucker set the tone with spoken word for The Roots to put their trademarked soft, Jazz-influenced sounds to the side and make way for vibrant, radicalized, Rock-influenced tone. Phrenology spoke to different genres with records like "Rock You" and the brief transition that is "!!!!!!!!" The album falls back into a familiar pocket with songs like "Complexity" featuring Jill Scott and "Sacrifice" with Nelly Furtado. The band didn't stray far from what they became best known for; their percussion shined through on songs like "Rolling With Heat" and "Rhymes and Ammo (with uncredited appearances by Talib Kweli) and a standout barrage of bars from Trotter on "Thought @ Work." The album's lead singles, "Break You Off" with Musiq Soulchild and "The Seed(2.0)" with Cody Chestnutt were vintage installations of that classic Roots R&B sound: funky and soulful.

Phrenology did its job in encapsulating just who The Roots are: an amalgamation of musical influences with the task of changing how we look at instrumentation. The album set in stone that the band and its surrounding communities would have a place in music history. In looking at the trajectory of what The Roots has accomplished since, one can say, we should've seen it coming.

You can stream The Roots' entire discography here