If you only know The Roots as the house band of Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show,” then you know the fun-loving band that provides the necessary soundtrack and sound effects of Fallon’s various show segments, many of which revolve around musical impressions of some kind with his guests. The Roots put on an appropriately self-effacing and humorous demeanor in this role, and as such it can come as quite a shock to listeners interested in their studio discography to find a cerebral, uncompromising and downright serious band at the heart of their records. Classic albums such as “Things Fall Apart” and “How I Got Over” embrace the African American story in all its nuance and depth, all brought to life by both the band and their lead MC, Black Thought. When he’s not leading The Roots, Black Thought has a respectable studio discography of his own, with his first full-length album, “Streams of Thought Vol. 3: Cain and Able,” released on Oct. 16 on Republic Records, living up to the heady and intense promises of The Roots while also displaying Black Thought’s own talents as a solo artist.
Like its title promises, the album unfolds as a series of cascading tracks that leap off one another as it progresses. Each ending is a springboard for a new beginning, with each forthcoming track seeming to roll seamlessly off the previous one. Each song seems to form its own existence as it’s being played, cosmically improvised from the void. Like much of The Roots’ discography, in many places it is not a casual listen; it is demanding of its audience and aims to provoke an active response.
With regards to production, Black Thought employs live drums and basslines along with tight, punchy keyboard lines to provide the underlying basis for the album’s sound. This puts it under the same umbrella with the discography of The Roots, but this solo record has more of a mixtape feeling, in that it is rougher and more serrated than The Roots’ more slick, polished approach to crafting songs. “State Prisoner” utilizes a choir-like chant and muted drum lines to underline Black Thought’s flowing verses, and “Good Morning” employs what can’t only be described as a musical emergency alarm. Things take a slightly less intense tone in “Magnificent,” a smoother track closer to The Roots in style. “Nature of the Beast” features Portugal. The Man as a guest artist and features a mostly mainstream sound aside from an intriguing synth refrain that is indicative of the rest of the album’s style.
“Streams of Thought” is an excellent solo effort by one of the most dynamic and lyrically proficient rappers in the field today. Black Thought has proven himself before as The Roots’ front man, both live and in the studio, but he is just as impressive as a solo artist, and “Streams of Thought Vol. 3” is an engaging exhibition of a master MC at work. Modern rap music has garnered a reputation for sloppiness or low effort, perhaps best exemplified by the derogatory term “SoundCloud rapper,” referring to the supposedly generic nature of self-produced rap music. But listeners would be wrong to think that such cheap distractions are at the forefront of contemporary hip-hop. On the contrary, Black Thought’s work here is a good example of the more socially conscious and intellectually engaged strains of rap that have existed before. Comparisons to, say, Public Enemy or other such luminaries of sophisticated rap music might be a bit rash, but at the same time this album evokes similar emotions and lines of musical logic to them. I give “Streams of Thought Vol. 3: Cain and Able” 4/5 stars.