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