Album cover via Black Thought/Instagram
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Son Raw is, oddly enough, the target demo for that Aristocats remake.
For rap fans of a certain age, the words “Black Thought solo album” evoke longstanding feelings of frustration. 20-plus years removed from Thought’s scrapped Masterpiece Theater project, a half decade removed from the Streams Of Thought mixtapes, and a year after Cheat Codes with Danger Mouse, there remained a nagging sense that we never got that Black Thought solo project – the one that could encapsulate just what makes the Roots’ frontman such a compelling emcee. There was of course, The Roots’ celebrated group catalog – the jazzy rootsiness of their early work, the ambitious concepts of their late ’90s output, the lost years in the early aughts and their artistic resurrection at Def Jam, but we were promised a great solo Thought record, and never quite got a project that scratched that itch. Us rap fans are demanding a lot, and we don’t forgive or forget.
Glorious Game, produced and orchestrated by The El Michels Affair, Brooklyn’s longstanding Daptone-affiliated purveyors of retro soul, should finally put that nagging absence to rest. Despite a lack of guests and “solo debut” grandstanding, as compared to Cheat Codes, Glorious Game is the record that finally gets Black Thought as a solo prospect, leaning into his strengths rather than trying to work around any perceived weaknesses. In a taut 31 minutes, with low key guest vocalists limited to hook duty, the album delivers exactly what fans want from Black Thought: incredible, forceful rapping over spare grooves that give the man space to do what he does best. A simple formula, but never an easy one to follow through on.
Let’s get those perceived weaknesses out of the way. Just as a devoted core following champions Tariq Luqmaan Trotter as an emcee’s emcee, a group of naysayers will point out that his technician’s approach to rhyming can lack personality. I see both sides here: as much as I love virtuoso rhymefests like “Double Trouble” with Mos Def, “Thought @ Work”’s G-Rap homage, and his late career-defining Funkmaster Flex freestyle, Thought’s metronomic flow and adherence to true school emceeing is just one way to be good at rap. If you’re into this music for Lil Wayne’s wild metaphors, Young Thug’s psychedelic vocalizations or Future’s deep well of emotional content, Black Thought can appear staid, the rap equivalent of a brilliant Hard Bop player who can’t pull off Free Jazz chaos or soulful fusion.
What El Michels Affair gets on Glorious Game however, is that this is only a problem if you make it one. By delivering slow, soulful grooves, halfway between peak-RZA, Dilla, and the Hi Records B-sides they sampled, and letting Thought rip, the band avoids falling into the trap of overcompensating for Thought’s technicality, instead leaning into it. Who needs flashy guest stars or psychedelic tomfoolery on the production when you’ve got a brilliant emcee with a lot on his mind? Just let the man rap!
It helps that the zeitgeist has caught up to both emcee and band. With the Griselda wave doubling down on slow, wobbly soul, now is the perfect time for a Black Thought album that doesn’t overthink things. The guy worked with a live band his whole career? Let’s have him rock over a live band. The best Roots material blended organic instrumentation and J Dilla’s take on sample manipulation? Well let’s try some of that. This comfy sonic foundation, in turn, allows Black Thought the space and vibe to just flow – and I don’t need to spell out how beautiful that can sound.
Lyrically, the content is conscious as always, but unlike too many 90s veterans stuck in the past, Black Thought’s perspective has only gotten richer and more insightful with age, and he excels in the role of a wizened elder – dispensing game without judgment over what sounds like golden oldies. His firebrand flow is as deadly as ever, but whereas Black Thought’s lyrics once positioned The Roots as agitators upset at being on the outside of rap looking in, his words are now imbued with a sense of humility and gratitude, with that hard-fought confidence perfectly complimenting Glorious Game’s mellow grooves.
When measuring the ups and downs of Black Thought’s career, it’s hard to emphasize the downside. Most emcees would kill for a daily gig on national TV, not to mention the robust touring opportunities, Grammy wins and respect that comes with being part of The Roots. On the other hand, it’s hard to be that emcee only to be left out of conversations about the greats, just because you rocked over a live band on albums instead of on whatever DJ Clue was spinning on his tapes. Glorious Game won’t win over the mixtape set, nor will it convert listeners who favor newest-school antics over Tariq’s multisyllabic spray. But now, whenever someone wants to bring up Thought’s solo catalog as a negative, we can always bring up Glorious Game, a clear and obvious win.