Shuffle: The Roots’ “Don’t Feel Right” *****

11Jun08

(Kenny writing)

The Roots are my least favorite band I own six albums by.  Obviously this doesn’t make them bad — I wouldn’t have bought six albums by them if they didn’t produce pleasure on a regular basis.  At the same time, not one stands out as worthy of attention from beginning to end.  They really are an example of a band with whom “everything sounds the same” — sure I know that over their eight album career their band tendency has shifted from light(er) jazz to heavy(er) funk, but the both the tone and content of not only the words (on the page) but the raps (on your speakers) have remained steady to a fault.  Indeed, their purpose seems to be steadiness itself, a value in a subculture where the instability produced by economic marginality and police repression is at the center of consciousness.  For those of us outside that subculture, it rarely produces lyrics that do more then remind us what we already know.

So the purpose of this little essay is to describe what produces a favorite track in a mode where standing out is not the point.  Almost trivially, the answer is simply a well-worked title, and an addictively simple keyboard hook underpinning it.

Mixed halfway down is repetition of the same vocalist — there are at least three on the track — saying the more or less audible lyrics “feel right” on the beat, anticipating the hook, some two dozen times.  The first words that enter, the words aren’t clear during the drum intro, but when the hook comes in, this time with the three beat “don’t feel right” rather then the clipped two beat version less then 30 second later, they are clear enough.   The background vocalist sounds stressed, with “feel right” not a description but a target, and not one the rapper expects to meet. 

The verses come in, explaining the reason for the failure to feel right:  but, you don’t need a quote here, since all Roots lyrics explain why black men don’t feel right.  The point in this case is that the overdubbed voices saying “feel right/don’t feel right” on regular beats, forgrounded and backgrounded, so completely sum up the lyrics that this time the details stick.   A simple keyboard hook, also moving back and forth between two and three notes, reinforces the focus of the title as it repeats underneath the verses.

On the six albums I’ve heard, the Roots have accomplished the trick accomplished by this track — to reinforce to their worldview through one unforgettable hook-phrase — exactly once.  (Compare this to, say, Public Enemy at their height, doing it four or five times an album.)  Everything else is smart people carrying a steady groove.

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One Response to “Shuffle: The Roots’ “Don’t Feel Right” *****”

  1. 1 schweitzito

    I feel similarly about the Roots, and one thing you’ve left out is that early on they fooled us into thinking they were already making great albums. That we stuck with them once the disappointment that they hadn’t set in is a testament to their steadiness. I hear their groove improving over each album (aside from Phrenology, which wasn’t about one album-long groove, but rather forays into various rock hybrids. But the underrated followup, The Tipping Point, was their most aptly-named record because it was the first one that sounded, to my white semi-boho urban-to-quasi-suburban ears, as street as one would expect from anyone claiming “old school”. And they haven’t looked back, either — the occasionally frustrating austerity of their ’90s records is pretty much gone — when they seem arty, it’s in the manner of an exceptional techno DJ who’s out to prove himself by producing a sound that scrunches your shoulder in a novel way. And right, they have trouble making whole albums of this, especially since, right, it’s never been necessary to follow their lyrics word for word. Which is why the answer to an exceptional track by them is so simple — there’s just not enough at stake, even if what they do turns out to be vital enough to stretch over six durable albums since 1996 (I think I heard Do You Want More? once, and I guess I didn’t at the time). “Don’t Feel Right” is definitely high in their pantheon, maybe highest. But nothing about it makes me think it’s their perfect track. Just like their new album keeps on pushing everything, but can’t quite make the leap from durable to inexhaustible.


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