In a new feature we shine a light on the best rappers to ever pick up a mic, running a fine toothed comb through some of their lines and verses to access what makes them stand out amongst their peers. First up is Black Thought, of The Roots.
Tariq Luqmaan Trotter aka Black Thought is the co-founder of the legendary hip-hop group The Roots. Along with his best friend Ahmir Thompson aka Questlove, the Philadelphia locals joined forces in 1987 to create a group which is still going strong nearly three decades later. Consistently cited as the most underrated rapper in the industry, Black Thought combines complex rhyme schemes with political statements like no one else. Along with his gritty delivery, constant wordplay and use of metaphors, he has become one of the most recognisable and respected rappers around.
The Roots released their first record in 1993 but it was their release three years later, which featured a social commentary from Black Thought on the city where he grew up, that showcased the band’s true potential.
“I’m livin’ life within a labyrinth of nonsense/ this is a consequence of being Philly residents/ trying to get it on/ the rhythm getting shitted on/ the exquisite I exhibit to shine.”
Still yet to achieve any real success, these lines reflected a disenfranchised outlook on the struggling streets of Philadelphia. These initial rough sketches of reflection would then later be expanded upon with amazing eye to detail as Black Thought began to find his voice.
The later success of 1999’s Things Fall Apart, and more specifically the hit single You Got Me brought The Roots into mainstream attention. They won a Grammy, and the hype surrounding them subsequently built to fever pitch. When it eventually arrived, the much-delayed Phrenology didn’t achieve the same kind of success as its predecessor, but nonetheless featured some classic Black Thought verses.
Key lyrics: “What a movement, the rap solution/ it thumps so hard we got ’em worldwide using them/ tracks from Black for satisfaction/ the role of captain played by Samuel L. Jackson/ ill insanity that’s cold and morbid/ but when I’m in your orbit your soul absorb it.”
The track saw Black Thought reflecting on just how far his group had come in a relatively short period of time, the last couplet in particular showcasing what was to come from the rapper, when it came to making boasts about how good his skills were.
However, his attention wasn’t solely placed on his own band and around the time of Phrenology he also began to feature on a number of tracks for other artists. Famously, he recorded a guest verse on the legendary Big Pun’s Capital Punishment album.
Key lyrics: “Stressing to emcees how they don’t really want this/ electrifying shit his excellency Thought spit/ these cats they sentimental such with a gentle touch/ dancing double Dutch and all saying nothing much/ my sound wave lifting your chin up like uppercuts.”
Rumour has it that Big Pun would only invite rappers he respected into the booth and then try to out rap them. Black Thought made this close to impossible on Super Lyrical though, as he traded verses with seeming ease. The classic boasts of his abilities here are some of the best lines he has produced in relation to his lyrical skills over his fellow MCs.
Around the time of The Tipping Point a number of original members from The Roots had already left the band or were about to. Fellow rapper Malik B left first, then Ben Kenney left and strangely went on to join rock band Incubus. The disharmony didn’t stop Black Thought’s productivity though as he now found himself on top form.
Key lyrics: “Talk sharp like a razor blade under the tongue/ clear my path and come get your captain hung/ trying to breath like Black will collapse your lungs/ young chump you could choke off the web I spun/ I done cleared ’em out from the threat I brung.”
2004’s The Tipping Point was the result of numerous jam sessions over a few years which allowed the rapper to riff over an endless array of live instrumentals. However, as was now fitting with the band they didn’t stick with the same sound and moved away from the jam session feel with their follow up.
Game Theory arrived amongst a time of political upheaval in America and that dark and foreboding atmosphere leaked not only into the music but also into Black Thought’s lyrics in the form of rich personal introspection from the rapper.
Key lyrics: “Sitting in the staircase, holding back tears/ Looking over mad years’ worth of photographs/ Pictures of some places I ain’t never going back/ Some people I used to love, why I ain’t show them that?/ The skies was overcast, when I was sober last/ My head is spinning, couldn’t tell you if it’s slow or fast/ It’s starting to get too clear, I got to go and grass/ To y’all it’s a shame but life is what we know it as/ Waiting, navigating the plot, without plans/ In the car, it’s hard to read as a clock with no hands.”
This was followed by 2008’s Rising Down a dark indictment on the entire world. It saw Black Thought briefly stepping away from his own inner turmoil to address the issues of climate change.
Key lyrics: “Between the greenhouse gases and earth spinnin off its axis/ got mother nature doin back flips/ the natural disasters/ It’s like 80 degrees in Alaska/ you in trouble if you not an Onassis/ It ain’t hard to tell that the conditions is drastic/ just turn on the telly check for the news flashin/ How you want it bagged, paper or plastic? / lost in translation or just lost in traffic?”
The album’s title was taken from William T. Vollmann’s book Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means. It showcased the rapper in a new light, where suddenly world issues were given his full focus. However, the fears of the earth’s condition only brought out greater issues within Black Thought’s own psyche.
He addressed the need for change, not only in the world as a whole but also with himself on How I Got Over track Now or Never. Once again, this showed that nobody does existential struggles better than himself.
Key lyrics: “I’m sick, sick of waiting in vain, tired of playing the game/ Thinking of making a change, finally breaking the chains/ Every phase, every happening craze/ When it’s said and done, my head is right back in a haze/ I’m ready for the next chapter and page to start acting my age/ And part ways with Black Thought from back in the days.”
Within How I Got Over and its follow up Undun’s gritty depictions, he painted a world that was ravaged by problems geographically, politically and socially. There were statements on climate change and police brutality, but it was all done while he refused to take the heat off himself personally. The track exposed both a politically aware and socially responsible rapper that still grappled with perceptions of the self.
Fellow Philly local Freeway talked of Black Thought in glowing terms when asked who he thought was the most underrated rapper of all time.
“As far as other people, definitely Black Thought. He’s a monster. Everything that he’s put out is quality… definitely slept-on. He’s got a lot of positive messages and lyrics and flow patterns in his music.”
“Black Thought is the most underrated emcee ever in the history of music,” Royce 5’9 agreed in an interview with HipHopDX.
“Yes he’s successful, but that has nothing to do with what I’m speaking about. You go to the barbershop, people talk about their top five lyricists. Because he’s such a good technical rapper, because a lot of what he do doesn’t necessarily represent for the popular climate would be sometimes, kind of like myself, it’s almost like if you don’t rap like you’re trying to get into the night club, then you automatically get pushed to the left of certain conversations.”
Royce would know all about his skills after he featured alongside him on Statik Selektah’s The Imperial. Himself a vastly underrated and under-appreciated rapper, Black Thought’s verse was one of the greatest features by a rapper ever and blew away the competition, which also included Action Bronson. The track saw him addressing everything from exuberant T-shirt prices in New York City to where he placed in the greatest rappers list. Here’s just a collection of some of his key lines from it:
“And you say New York City/ my cheapest T-shirts cost me $450.”
“Listen my calling card ball hard like armadillos/ rappers too thin to win, like cigarillos/ Shaking their hair back and forth like Willow/ but need to save the soft ass talking for the pillows.”
“My responses, a stepping razor like I’m Father Tosh/ exotic fabrics on my blazer like the Maharaja/ Sick whips in my garage, roll with no entourage/ but I roll with heat like I’m Dwayne Wade, Lebron and Bosh.”
“Killer colloquium, kush rolled with opium/ making my associates act so inappropriate.”
“Yo who your top 5? Jay, Biggie, Pac, Nas/ I ain’t trying to hear another name if it’s not mine.”
“I don’t feel overlooked, underappreciated, or none of that because it’s a short list of artists, past and present, that I kind of have respect for,” the man himself said on the topic of being considered as one of the greatest to have ever done it.
“The people who I feel are the best to do it consider me one of the best as well. I’m in great company and some may say that the underexposure has added to my allure and the staying power of me as a MC and The Roots as a band… it kind of adds to the intrigue.”
Enjoy arguably Black Thought’s greatest lyrical show below:
Image: Fly Magazine