Of all the albums to turn 10 years old this in 2020, The Roots’ How I Got Over might be the heaviest. The legendary Philly band’s moody homage to triumph over tragedy is a light at the end of the tunnel, but as featured MC Phonte said in his verse on “Now or Never,” there’s inevitably another tunnel at the end of the light.
It’s a hard album to listen to because we find ourselves today in an even darker, more dangerous and divided United States than exists in living memory, but the hip-hop heroes’ ninth studio album is essential listening precisely because it stares these horrors in the face and refuses to fall before them. We must study the hard truths of Black Thought’s words and those of his many collaborators. There is salvation and consult in these rhymes, while in Questlove and the band’s steadily-rising compositions there is an uplifting rhythm by which we can push ourselves to keep marching.
In 2008, The Roots released its politically-charged eighth LP, Rising Down. Its 14 tracks were a collection of righteous rhymes and synth-tinged beats colored by the ails of George W. Bush’s America. Already in their mid-30s, The Roots watched in disgust as a new generation of Philadelphians and Americans lived within a system of old struggles.
Of course, 2008 was also an election year, one that would go on to be monumental and historic. About six months after Rising Down‘s release, Barack Obama became the United States’ first Black President. He was elected with a message of “hope” and “change” that gave progressives the daring feeling of a new dawn.
How I Got Over captures the emotionally-fraught journey of accepting optimism after so many moments of lost faith. It starts with the beautiful, building acapella of “A Peace of Light.” Feminine voices dance in harmony, rising to meet a blast of instrumentation and Questlove’s jazzy drums. It’s soothing, but it’s not outright joyful, and it’s followed by a trio of songs that make no attempt to conceal life’s hardships.
“Walk Alone” is a trudging tune with true blues soul. Questlove creates a beat with the lumbered pace of tired footsteps. Staccato piano and cinematic strings lend melancholy melody as Truck North, Greg Porn, Dice Raw, and Black Thought wrestle with the weight of outcasts.
The plot thickens on “Dear God 2.0,” another slow and somber song that sees Black Thought drop the most intense laundry list of social ills. With hindsight, this list reads like a warning of dangers for the decade ahead, touching everything from prescription pill addictions to climate change, economical collapse, technology’s divisive capabilities, Chinese dependency, natural disasters, and police brutality. “Radio Daze,” too, seems prophetic in the era of “fake news,” Russian bots, and “alternative facts,” but this album’s age serves to remind us that these weapons aren’t new.
This June, as the album turns 10, we find ourselves staring down a depression as a result of forced quarantine to mitigate a global pandemic. While local governments grapple with how quickly to “reopen,” streets flood with tens of thousands of protestors demanding institutional change and an end to harrowing police violence. We are so far deep into the darkest parts of these verses, but it feels like we’re also just reaching the point of the fifth track, “Now or Never.”
This is the track where we start to change. Our circumstances are still dire, but as Black Thought pronounces, we realize that true evolution begins with ourselves. “I’m sick, sick of waiting in vain / tired of playing the game,” he says, “Thinking of making a change, finally breaking the chains.”
We are all Black Thought, trying to pick ourselves up while still in the mud, telling ourselves it’ll get better knowing there are power and truth inside the mantra. The energetic thrust continues on the titular track. The rhythm is bouncier, the melodies brighter, and while we still don’t see a resolution to the issues at hand, we continue to hear Black Thought’s approach to life grow. Even his voice has changed because here, the rapper begins to sing.
The sweet and tender beauty of “The Day” reminds us that, though we may falter, each morning is a chance to do more. By “Right On,” (which samples “The Book of Right-On” by Joanna Newsom) we find ourselves cool in the groove of self-empowerment. With the John Legend suite of “Doin’ It Again” and “The Fire,” we’ve become fully reinvigorated and ready for action. The crescendo climaxes as it finishes with the downright boastful verses of “Web 20/20” and “Hustla,” a song that also looks ahead with advice to the next generation.
In June 2010, no one could have seen what America has become. How I Got Over doesn’t have powerful answers to our forever problems, but it does offer strength in times of weakness and resilience in the face of constant oppression. It dares us to be courageous and confident in spite of all the evil we know exists, because we won’t win the war by giving up. Our fight for what’s right must outlast those who would have us fold into frustration and fear.
How I Got Over is not the celebratory sound of a battle won but a soft and stirring beacon that inspires us to continue on. It’s a musical promise that one day we will look back and explain how we did get over this moment and any moment left to come.