Doomscrolling through history with Black Thought's 'Streams of Thought, Vol. 3'

The Roots’ Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter lead vocalist, foreground, with drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson on the Main Stage Sunday evening at Soundset 2016. ] JEFF WHEELER • The ninth annual Soundset hip-hop festival took place in its new location at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds Sunday, May 29, 2016 in Falcon Heights.

The Roots’ Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter lead vocalist, foreground, with drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson on the Main Stage Sunday evening at Soundset 2016. ] JEFF WHEELER • The ninth annual Soundset hip-hop festival took place in its new location at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds Sunday, May 29, 2016 in Falcon Heights. Star Tribune

How many 47-year-old rappers can you say are rhyming better than ever?

Theoretically, rap is a craft that an MC can hone over the course of a lifetime. In practice, different skills are celebrated in different eras, and what sounds exhilarating one moment soon becomes mockably dated. This can have as much to do with capital as it does art—fashion masquerading as avant-gardism—and the need for younger rhymers to prove their elders obsolete. And whether in anticipation or response to this, classicists overestimate the value of older approaches to the form and seek to preserve them. The upshot is that styles are either discarded or calcified before they’re fully explored.

At its best—which is pretty damn great—the latest EP from Black Thought, Streams of Thought Vol. 3: Cane and Able EP, sidesteps this dilemma. As the MC for the Roots, the man born Tariq Trotter has occupied an unusual position in rap. We expect a rapper to claim top billin’ and fight off all comers, but Thought has been, by necessity and perhaps by nature, a team player, adapting his gifts to whatever concept his band is exploring and ceding the spotlight to Questlove, the showman of the group, its leader and fulcrum. As a result, Black Thought has sometimes been slightly under-noticed by mainstream rap fans (a strange thing to say about a guy who appears on The Tonight Show) and, consequently, his skills have sometimes been slightly overrated by his defenders.

I mention Trotter’s rep not because it’s as important an issue as the online hip-hop fans who compulsively debate GOAT lists insist, but to show why he can avoid the problems facing many rap elders. Unlike other middle-aged MCs, he doesn’t have to compete with his own legacy, and he’s not defined by a particular era that he dominated. He has no Reasonable Doubt or It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back to compete against in the present.

And though plenty aggressive on the mic, Thought’s a reluctant star. A debut solo album was scrapped in 2001, its tracks integrated into the Roots’ Phrenology. A later collaboration with Danger Mouse was shelved, and other projects have been rumored over the years.

Then a 10-minute freestyle on Funkmaster Flex’s Hot 97 show in late 2017 unexpectedly went viral, and so he’s stepped out solo over the past few years—though “eased out” might be a better way to put it. His 2018 EP Streams of Thought, Vol. 1 was, at 17 minutes, not even twice as long as the freestyle, and its title flaunted its improvisatory shapelessness; he followed it up later that year with Streams of Thought, Vol. 2—just 23 minutes.

If its predecessors seemed to be testing the waters without making too many waves, Streams of Thought Vol. 3: Cane and Able arrives with some anticipation, and demonstrates slightly more ambition. As with the earlier volumes, Thought entrusts the beats to a single producer. (That seems in character as well, placing himself at the mercy of a single individual.) 9th Wonder helmed Vol. 1, Salaam Remi its sequel, and, in this case, Sean C, who made his name with Puffy’s Hitmen, takes the reins. At 34 minutes, Vol. 3 is the longest in the series, and it’s also the most fleshed out of the three.

That’s for better and worse. Vol. 3 begins with Thought’s voice ominously down-pitched, a screwed baritone that also recalls George Clinton’s spoken intro on “Maggot Brain” (a resemblance underlined by some heavy Funkadelic guitar from Andy Attanasio) as Native American activist/songwriter John Trudell quietly skewers Columbus’s inhuman ideology. Three tracks feature occasionally enticing, occasionally distracting hooks from Portugal.The Man. And the paradox of Black Thought, who has always rhymed like a loner in the midst of a crowd, comes to the fore on “Good Morning,” where he tag-teams with Pusha T and Killer Mike while Swizz Beatz adds a chorus, and when Schoolboy Q appears on “Steak Um.”

But regardless of guest features or adornments, the focus remains on the individual skills of the man who declares, “If I’m a walking institution, I’m an HBCU.” He balances rap-for-rap’s-sake virtuosity and politically engaged topicality, whether dexterously stringing together resonant “or” sounds on a line like “But historically, the authorities been morally bankrupt” or catching you up short with a simple “What’s the worst they can do to you? I bet my mama know.”

The EP builds up to “Thought vs. Everybody,” a three-minute showcase of the best Black Thought has to offer. He declares himself “half Masta Killa and half Hugh Masekela” and leaves the ignorant to Google for knowledge, and seeks wisdom in aphorisms like “life is like a tree that falls/In the woods, even with iPhone footage to see it.” He darts between present and future, enacting the illusion of spontaneity, as though compulsively doomscrolling through history. Yet no matter how frantic his flow it retains a nimble grace; no matter how dark his subject he illuminates it with his technique. In these rhymes, art emerges as an insufficient form of reparations for centuries of horror that haven’t yet ended, but also a form of defiance—proof of life, if nothing else.

Today’s trap favors an often-spare style, accentuating rhythm, flow, and space over wordplay, and in this context, virtuoso lyricism like Thought’s can be embarrassing because it flourishes a mess of excess. And as a result sides are chosen. I fully acknowledge that there’s nothing remarkable about a middle-aged white guy getting excited by the work of middle-aged rappers, just as there’s nothing remarkable about younger music fans putting their elders out to pasture. But I also believe that some battles don’t need to be fought.