1. They understand what works and what doesn’t. We haven’t a bad word to say about The Roots’ last album of original material, ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, but it wouldn’t translate to a venue like the Joint. Cousin is the sternest, least colloquial and most introverted record they have ever made; there are vanishingly few hooks (unusual for The Roots, a band that gave us the super-catchy “Proceed”). At recent shows the band has wisely stuck to older material, which might bum out the more opaque wing of their fanbase but is great for our purposes.
2. The Roots’ back catalog is studded with classics. One thing about The Roots: Their best tracks remain stubbornly addictive. It’s been nearly 20 years, but the swashbuckling power of a song like “The Seed (2.0)” has yet to erode with age or ubiquity. “Without a Doubt,” “Get Busy” and “Game Theory” still burn with the energy of rapper Black Thought’s primal spirit; “The Fire” and “Act Too (The Love of My Life)” are still resplendent. And hip-hop heads of a more conservative persuasion never fail to lose their minds when the band plays “What They Do,” a major flashpoint in the mid-’90s coastal rap wars.
3. They moonlight as a cover band. Roots drummer Questlove is frequently consulted for his expertise on black music generally and hip-hop in particular. When Keith Olbermann professed an interest in learning about hip-hop, Quest tweeted him a playlist spanning 200 of the genre’s most frequently sampled songs. The guy knows his stuff. It comes as no surprise, then, that The Roots’ live show includes a rotating medley of funk and soul staples from their childhood in 1970s Philadelphia. And if they’re feeling particularly brave, they’ll cover Zeppelin (“Immigrant Song”).
4. Black Thought raps like a man possessed. In person, Black Thought is quick-witted but guarded and untalkative, rarely removing his sunglasses. He’s also a consummate showman whose indefatigable energy and demonically seductive charisma make it hard to peel your eyes away. His 11-minute Hot 97 freestyle, the unredacted footage of which is available on YouTube, might be the greatest such performance in living memory. Onstage, Black Thought will leave you rapt; few MCs are more committed or willing to break an electrolyte-depleting sweat. Pity his poor microphone.
5. They’re the hardest-working band of their kind. Even after a decade as the house band for The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, The Roots prioritize musicianship over the cheaper thrills of celebrity. They rehearse rigorously and daily—not to please Fallon’s target demo but because, more than any other group, they can’t afford to get too comfortable. Everyone in the band save for Questlove and Black Thought is employed on a tour-by-tour basis. Their niche is tricky enough to perfect without constant fluctuations in lineup, but somehow they’ve gotten it down to a science. Who else could pull off this—balance between jamboree-style live instrumentation and sharp-elbowed Philly rap—but The Roots?
THE ROOTS February 22, 8:30 p.m., $48-$67. The Joint, 702-693-5000.