All too frequently, a music icon partners with a writer on the story of his or her life, and the resulting text is a smattering stories you’re not supposed to remember, let alone recount: dressing room trysts with loaded groupies, drug-fueled jaunts, brutally uncensored and skewed re-tellings of the darkest moments of an ill-fated artistic collaboration. There are also plenty of inspirational tales and revealing, endearingly honest moments, too — ones that look back on the origins of the biggest or most overlooked songs from their careers. Then there’s always the question of how much of the book came from the artist and which parts were pieced together from incoherent transcripts by the writer attached to the project, and the question of objectivity in general when — despite the fact that much of the story at hand has been well-documented and scrutinized in a public forum — flowery language and tales of glory days gone by bring readers to disingenuous, manufactured ends.
In short, a musician’s memoir more often than not gives fans what they want: an entertaining, closer look at the artist. But with Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson’s Mo’ Meta Blues, we’re not given a typical autobiography or an annotated soundtrack to a cross-genre career ridden with scandal and tabloid fodder. Instead, we’re handed a stack of pages seemingly pulled from the grey matter of one of the world’s most exceptional, intriguing talents — and they’re couched by facts, figures and second opinions that reaffirm the author’s tenacity and honesty.
From the start, Mo’ Meta Blues is an immediate departure from a typical memoir in that it invites dialogue — though it’s isn’t immediately clear as to who’s asking Questlove the questions. The first five pages go back and forth in a Q&A format, picking apart what Questlove is seeking to achieve with his memoir. An amble through Questlove’s earliest days comes next, one that illustrates a childhood spent in Philadelphia and on the road with his musician parents as they gigged across the country for months at a time. This includes a chronological selection of records significant to his musical taste between chapters: Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, Prince’s 1999, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders, etc.
We’re shown a teenage Questlove’s introduction to Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter, the man who’d become his constant collaborator and co-founder of the band we now know as The Roots. We’re provided a front-row seat at their first performances together, all the way up through recording sessions at the famed Electric Ladyland Studios, when Questlove was co-producing D’Angelo’s Voodoo, and onto the occasion when Questlove was nearly axed from his “day job” at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon for playing "Lyin’ Ass Bitch" during Michele Bachman’s appearance on the show.
Questlove is commendably forthcoming, especially when talk delves into uncomfortable territory. The dissolution of his parents’ marriage, his first run-in with Sean “Puffy” Combs after the death of the Notorious B.I.G. (whose stylistic excess The Roots had mocked in their “What They Do” music video), the spat with Trotter that came to blows — none of it’s off limits or off the record, and this candid approach makes Mo’ Meta Blues’ 275 pages easy to devour.
But Mo’ Meta Blues sheds far more light into Questlove in a way that a merely captivating tale can’t. As if to admit that the real Questlove story lies somewhere beyond the memoir’s requisite life history, Mo’ Meta Blues is corroborated and corrected with additional commentary. The voice of Questlove’s longtime manager Richard Nichols, in footnote form, pokes fun at the story throughout. Emails between co-writer Ben Greenman and his editor, Ben Greenberg, are also incorporated into the text and discuss issues with sprawling nature of Questlove’s narrative. A brave stylistic and editorial choice, these inclusions — Nichols, Greenman and Greenberg piping in from the sidelines — offer insight into the behind-the-scenes decisions and uncontainable creativity that shape the memoir and Questlove’s own storytelling. But more importantly, they draw attention to the fact that Mo’ Meta Blues isn’t painting a picture that doesn’t exist outside the guise of an artist’s "perspective." Nichols in particular calls out Questlove frequently. For example, he implies that it was Questlove who was late to the recording session of "The Seed 2.0" — not Cody ChesnuTT, as the narrator suggests. Questlove himself alludes to the value of this dynamic during the second half of the book, at a point in his career when he’s rollerskating with Prince and taking home Grammys: “If you want to get to know [famous people], don’t bother talking to them; instead, talk to the five people who know them the best. That way, you get a picture of them without having to deal with their overdeveloped defenses.”
According to Questlove, the old Roots adage is to “make sure that every album works on three levels: as a personal statement, as a statement about hip-hop, and as a statement about the world.” Mo’ Meta Blues may be a solo project in some sense of the word, but it invokes the standards he and his band mates have used to shape their careers. It’s a fascinating glimpse at a life set to a soundtrack only Questlove could come up with, and the best part is that there’s only more to hear.