Consider this a message

by Nathan Hall

Anyone who attended a mainstream rap concert in the 1980s should remember how awful live hip-hop used to be. Although isolated groups like the Fat Boys were developing unique personas and genuine lyrical story lines, the majority of these shows inevitably became more about dry-humping blowup dolls, mindless shout-outs, and dozens of pointless costume changes. Philadelphia-based crew The Roots are renowned for raising the bar well above such sophomoric inanity and selling out stadiums the world over. Sadly, their spotty recorded output rarely, if ever, matches the sublime perfection of their live shows. This unfortunate trend continues with their sixth full-length album, “Phrenology.” The curious title refers to an early, misguided school of anthropology which argued that bumps on one’s skull could indicate one’s moral fiber. The Roots are obviously a well-read bunch (their last record’s title was a reference to Chinua Achebe’s novel “Things Fall Apart”) but it’s likely that their fence-sitting between leftist political activism and old-school party jams will forever remain both their greatest asset and their Achilles heel.

The Roots, who formed in 1987, originally started performing rap with live instrumentation simply because they could not afford fancy electronics. Eventually, they built an honest-to-God band that now features everyone from Rahzel (whom many consider the greatest beat-boxer ever) to renowned turntablist Scratch. Their jazz-hop fusion has many fawning admirers, including gangsta rapper Jay-Z, who recently invited them to accompany him as he performed for “MTV Unplugged.”

“Things Fall Apart,” which went gold and garnered a Grammy for the melancholic “You Got Me” single, succeeded primarily due to its mix of fiery moral indignation and sparse beats, drawing comparisons to Jurassic 5 and Dead Prez. While “Phrenology” maintains elements of Black Power rhetoric, the message sadly gets lost in the shuffle of concept album excess. The Roots’ all-inclusive recording method strives to combine neo-soul, punk, Euro-techno, and backpacker vibes into a cohesive ensemble. Not too surprisingly, the band fails miserably in this endeavor. Experimentation is fine and dandy, but the masses don’t require anymore mindless, Phish-esque improv.

Perhaps trying to imitate a marketing practice that many better-selling rap artists employ, The Roots feature guest vocals on several of the tracks. Nelly Furtado, Cody ChestnuTT, Talib Kweli and even Musiq serve up forgettable cameos. “Break You Off” comes across as exactly the type of lusty, empty-headed, nihilistic crooning the group worked so hard to rail against on past efforts, such as 1996’s “Illadelph Halflife.” The album’s lone bright spot is “The Seed (2.0),” an epic ode to an accidental pregnancy that delivers the clever word play and intelligent insight we are accustomed to from ?uestlove and the gang.

Although this record pales in comparison to more politically coherent output by The Coup, it is possible that no one compares to The Roots live set. The Roots remain king of the alt-rap heap, due in no small part to the fact that they play, on average, more than 250 shows a year. Perhaps the best documentation of The Roots gig experience is 1999’s live album “The Roots Come Alive,” a mix of live recordings from performances in New York and Paris. Always conscious of the group’s primarily Caucasian following, frontman Black Thought at one point interrupts a call-and-response tutorial and haughtily blurts out, “Y’all with me, Switzerland?” If that level of self-parody is not worth the price of admission, I don’t know what is. (Nathan Hall)

The Roots will perform with Cody ChestnuTT at 5 p.m. tonight at First Avenue (612) 332-1775 $25/$28, 21+

Nathan Hall welcomes comments at [email protected]