It seems cruel to suggest that the worst half of Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson's new memoir, Mo Meta Blues, is the half that's actually about him. Cruel, but not untrue--and not undeserved, given that ?uest himself opens the book by complaining about the predictability of most musical memoirs. Maybe that's impossible to escape. But when the rest of the book practically sparkles with mischief, I can't help but wish it was willing to spend more time dancing around expectations.
The book opens with a great deal of self-awareness. We're dropped into an interview between ?uestlove (a nickname that is wreaking havoc with my keyboard muscle memory) and an unnamed interviewer, debating how the memoir should be written. A letter from Ben Greenman, co-writer, then fills in some context: the interviewer is Richard Nichols, co-manager of The Roots, the band for which ?uestlove has been drumming for many years. Nichols proceeds to almost steal the show: a passionate and wry speaker, he takes over the narrative during the interview chapters, contradicts ?uestlove's account of events, and then decides he doesn't particularly care for the interview format. He spends the rest of the book weaving arch comments into the footnotes instead.
This is a book that takes the "meta" part of the title very seriously.
The problem is, when Mo Meta Blues actually slips into memoir, that awareness and playfulness seems to vanish. There are times when it picks back up, like ?uestlove's amazing Prince anecdotes or his year-by-year recounting of the best records he listened to throughout his childhood and why they're important, but these are few and far between. For the most part, the biography part of the story follows a traditional trajectory, with little scandal: The Roots form up in Philly, struggle for years, mingle with a collective of other artists, and eventually reach a kind of working success. The group comes across a lot like ?uest himself: wholesome and largely uncontroversial.
Which, to be fair, is not untrue: The Roots are not another Motley Crue, behind-the-music tabloid tale. But I think it probably undersells them. As Mo Meta itself points out, they're an uncommon outlier in modern hip-hop: a live band with lots of members and a long chain of albums, not to mention an expressly political viewpoint. There are hints of analysis there, but I wanted more.
So what we're left with is half slightly-dull memoir, half guided tour through hip-hop's sonic history. Which half wins? To me, it's a no-brainer: as a fan of his music, I'm happy to indulge ?uestlove for a few hours. But I'd love to see him cast his critical net a little wider next time.