Calling The Roots an interesting band is selling them short. Nobody in hip-hop has had a more varied career musically, and few people in hip-hop (or music, for that matter) have been able to put out quality albums almost 20 years apart.
But that’s what The Roots have done, and they’ve managed to do it in a new way. The band, particularly drummer/media leader Questlove, used to aspire for more fame than simply being Jimmy Fallon’s house band, and they’ve been very open about this fact. They would have loved to have a mega hit instead of the moderate hit that was You Got Me. But at this point, they’re content to be a house band on a late show. They’re happy with the paycheque, and most of all they’re happy about the artistic freedom that comes with making new records, something that suddenly became their side job in 2009.
Since then, they have released two new albums, last year’s How I Got Over and now Undun. Both albums are good, but probably not The Roots’ best work (although that is an extremely difficult thing to settle on due to their varied catalogue; their best work could be all but 3 of their 10 albums). What matters about them is that they are exactly what The Roots want them to be. They’re in a comfortable enough position to write what they want, about what they want, and know that whatever it is will find its way to their fans.
And if nobody else hears their music, they’re fine with that. Surely nobody expected the first single from Undun, Make My, to become a hit, mostly because nothing on that album even sounds like a single. It’s a good song, and I’m sure it will be great when they perform it live, but it wouldn’t sound right playing between Super Bass and Till the World Ends. Which is fine with The Roots, because they know they might get to be the backing band for any given performer that shows up on Late Night.
They’re not as popular as they might have once wanted, but they’re almost as present as they could ever hope to be. The Roots are an interesting case in artistic freedom. Everybody, from music critics to hip-hop fans to normal people like my mom, respects them. Not everybody loves their music, but that’s partially because nobody has ever made a song that literally everybody loves (I can’t imagine Kim Jong Il singing along to OutKast’s Hey Ya, although I kind of love the idea of it). What The Roots have realized, however, is that if they find a way to pay the bills, they can do whatever they want in their spare time. When The Roots contract with current label Def Jam runs out, maybe they’ll be resigned, switch labels, or maybe they’ll just release songs online whenever they feel like it.
They don’t have to make their music anymore, they’re just doing it because they love it. Which might be the most honest way for any artist to exist.