About two-thirds of the way through Mo’ Meta Blues, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s co-writer, Ben Greenman (a novelist and editor at The New Yorker), worriedly emails his editor: “We don’t want the book to go off the rails. Are there rails?” This chapter, ostensibly outside the memoir, isn’t even the most overt way Mo’ Meta Blues lives up to the “meta” part of its title—the book actually begins with Questlove claiming he wants his memoir “to be different” from everyone else’s book. These winks and nods are fun but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to justify the book’s scattershot treatment of the life of a musical icon.
In its effort to avoid being just another memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues uses no fewer than four separate chapter formats: straight first-person memoir, segments structured around specific records (appropriately titled “Quest Loves Records”), emails between Greenman and his editor, and dialogues between Questlove and Roots manager/producer Rich Nichols, whose thoughts later appear as footnotes in the memoir segments. Nichols serves primarily to correct Questlove’s memories or to provide a level of reflection that is lacking from much of the rest of the book. For all the history Thompson manages to cover, he never seriously engages with the events of his own life, maintaining the same detached, slightly confused “Who, me?” attitude toward everything from the creation and dissolution of the Soulquarians collective to the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” incident concerning Michele Bachmann. Nichols, who is passionately opinionated and remarkably clear (he makes a poignant yet wrong-headed argument that people should never listen to records twice in order to preserve the feelings and memory attached to that first, magical listen), actually proves an equally interesting and far more thoughtful subject than Questlove himself.
Mo’ Meta Blues is at its best when Thompson is at his most excited—discussing music. When it examines the times his career is flourishing, the book springs to life, as in the glowing descriptions of his collaboration with D’Angelo on Voodoo. When it isn’t—such as during The Roots’ estrangement that resulted at least in part from Questlove’s work with D’Angelo—he becomes reserved, and skims over events with little examination until he reaches good times again. It’s a pleasure to hear stories like the beginnings of his friendship with fellow Roots bandleader Black Thought (Questo was a nerd who made beats for Black Thought’s lunchtime freestyling in high school) or the nuggets of background on future famous people who were in The Roots’ orbit. (Quest went to his senior prom with Amel Larrieux of Groove Theory.) The nuances of both music itself and music as a career permeate Thompson’s life to the point that a straightforward memoir, tracing his musical evolution from his childhood touring with his father’s doo-wop band on, would have been interesting enough.
The sheer depth of the author’s knowledge and musical source material means the book practically begs for an accompanying musical supplement (a playlist, CD, or even a record) that would make it easier to follow along with the endless stream of deep cuts Thompson associates with each of his memories. The rigorously structured, appropriately titled “Quest Loves Records” sections take Thompson’s song-oriented thought process to its logical conclusion, organizing each of his memories in association with a particular record. They’re also, not coincidentally, the most cohesive parts of Mo’ Meta Blues. Thompson attempts to engage on several other subjects, including 9/11 and Roland Barthes, throughout Mo’ Meta Blues, and some of these digressions are compelling—especially the repeated attempts to interrogate whether Questlove is “black enough”—but it’s always clear his comfort zone is squarely located within the musical.
Mo’ Meta Blues tries hard to not be another music memoir, but it falls into an all-too-common trap of the genre: Spending a lifetime focused on making music doesn’t necessarily translate to the written word. There are some weird, wonderful places where the book succeeds at both providing a window into the life of a musical giant and communicating Questlove’s passions, especially during his recounting of a late-night roller-skating party with his idol, Prince. But in contrast to the success of Questlove’s music career, Mo’ Meta Blues only sporadically reaches brilliance.