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Black Thought: My Life in 20 Songs

The Roots’ longtime MC digs back nearly 30 years to detail the behind-the-scenes stories behind the group’s most indelible songs and deep cuts beloved by hardcore fans

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When Rolling Stone asked Black Thought, the ferocious, nimble rapper who has fronted the Roots for three decades, for his list of Roots songs that defined his life, he — subconsciously or otherwise — initially submitted tracks by other artists. Picking his own highlights from 11 albums, numerous guest appearances, and one of the most lauded freestyles of the decade turned out to be much harder.

“It was a lot easier for me to think of the 20 songs that soundtracked my life,” he says. “With my own songs, I couldn’t even wrap my head around it.”

Over the course of two hours, though, the loquacious musician born Tariq Trotter dug back nearly 30 years to detail the behind-the-scenes stories behind both the group’s most indelible songs and the deep cuts beloved by hardcore fans. Trotter, 48, co-founded the Roots with drummer Ahmir Thompson (Questlove) after they met at Philadelphia’s High School for the Creative and Performing Arts in 1987. The band grew to include co-founders Malik Abdul-Basit (Malik B.), Trotter’s dexterous counterpoint for more than a decade, and Leonard “Hub” Hubbard, the group’s unassuming, but crucial, bassist for more than 15 years — two key former members who died in the past 18 months. (Rich Nichols, the band’s longtime manager and a pivotal part of the group’s success since its formation, died in 2014.)

Even amid the pandemic, Black Thought remains an overachiever, with projects ranging from the return of a multi-day educational workshop at Carnegie Hall last summer to providing the lyrics and music to the upcoming Black No More, an off-Broadway musical written by 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley. (Trotter will also make his theatrical acting debut in the show.)

“I’m always going for a level of sociopolitical commentary. That’s the no-brainer element that’s going to be there no matter what,” the rapper says of his song choices, which could double as a commentary on the long arc of his career. “But I also wanted to include a certain degree of vulnerability and just being personal.” Where words like “longevity” are more aspirational than factual for most rappers, the music of Black Thought — from 1993’s Organix to 2020’s Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able — has long transcended trend-hopping.

“That’s what makes the Roots the Roots: There’s no expiration date,” he says. “The shelf life is eternal.”

From Rolling Stone US

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“Thought vs. Everybody” (2020)

That was the first song that we recorded for Streams of Thought Vol. 3. It was my intention to have completed my verse by the time the beat had taken shape. So that’s exactly what I did. I always try to speak to the hip-hop that had come before me that I had an appreciation for, as well as that same sociopolitical commentary that people have come to expect from me. I feel like my only competition at this point is myself. So it’s not even the idea of one-upping myself; It’s about taking it to a different place, yet maintaining that same level of excellence. When I started that verse, I was thinking of Killah Priest’s verse on GZA’s “4th Chamber” like, “I judge wisely/As if nothing ever surprises me/Loungin’ between two pillars of ivory.” How could I do something like that without biting him?My verse has the same sort of regal, celestial opulence: “They asked why I seem so solemn/On the throne between three stone columns.” I never want to sit in the same cadence or flow for a song in its entirety, especially if I know there’s not going to be a chorus. I want to take you through a couple different layers of the onion. That’s why I made a conscious decision to continually switch up the flow on that song. It’s just about speaking truth to power and how I feel as a Black man in America. It became more timely over time; I feel like it became more potent and powerful. When whatever you create gets better with time, that’s a sign of greatness.