The Roots — “Don’t Feel Right”

Released: 6.20.06

Peak:#48 [Hip-Hop/R&B Singles]

“You Got Me” aside, the Roots have never been much of a singles band. For better or worse, their groove builds to full effect at album length–as you might expect of a drummer-helmed band, they guide their own rhythmic progress more effectively than the radio or iPod shuffle can integrate their individual tracks into the mix. (Though they’ve been successful in less-than-likely ways on the charts–“Stay Cool” really hit number 31 R&B? Hurm.)

Always commercially averse, then, the band hardly went for the pop jugular with its Def Jam debut, Game Theory. If signing the Roots was Jay-Z’s big payback to the conscious rap crowd, they embraced their role as hip-hop’s ascetic hair shirt — the album was as hard as a North Philly sidewalk’s busted chunks of concrete and even less inviting. And yet, this intense burst was the crew’s finest single-shot of the decade. bolstered by hardly subtle samples from Kool & The Gang (“Jungle Boogie”) and Ohio Players (“Ecstasy”), the claustrophobic rise and fall of a simple piano riff, and a funky clavinet (redundant?) breakdown.

At a time of resurgent crack-rap, “Don’t Feel Right” was a worthy counterbalance. Always an under-sung MC, Black Thought excels at the stressed-yet-thoughtful pose. Here, he acknowledges the changing nature of racism is a post-civil-rights world — “The struggle ain’t right up in your face/ It’s more subtle” — while seeking to “school these bucks” whose lifestyles the prison-industrial complex feeds off. But the real emotional hook for me is singer Maimouna Youssef’s accentuation of “feel” rather than “right” in the chorus, capturing the sharp gut-ache that suggests something’s missing from life, rather than pretending to know what it could be.

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