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Friday, July 3, 2009

The Roots

Tonight @ Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard, Summefest, 10 p.m.

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It’s an unprecedented milestone in hip-hop: 10 albums. No rap act had ever recorded 10 albums—that is, 10 decent albums—until last year. That the group to first hit the 10-album mark was The Roots should be no surprise to those who had been following the Philadelphia ensemble, which for over a decade has been a testament to the artistic potential of hip-hop and refuted stereotypes that have long dogged the genre.

From their mid-’90s albums Do You Want More?!!? and Illadelph Halflife, where The Roots turned heads for the sheer novelty of being a rap act with live instruments, the band’s records have grown considerably. If they’d disbanded after 1999’s Things Fall Apart, a Grammy-winning culmination of the decade’s alternative rap and neo-soul movements, their legacy would have been well cemented, but the group has gone on to record albums that have arguably been even better, most notably 2006’s Game Theory, a mordant examination of crime, crackheads, racism and other societal ills that hit especially hard coming on the heels of the brighter, pop-crossovers The Roots had flirted with at the start of the century. Last year’s Rising Down was even more unrelenting, one of the most racially charged albums since the heyday of Public Enemy. That made The Roots something of a surprise choice to become the house band for Jimmy Fallon’s convivial incarnation of the “Late Night” talk show, but then again, the group has always had a playful side, and it’s been coming out in particular at the group’s recent performances, which have played more like carefree funk concerts than lofty Cornell West lectures.