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Retirement comes early in hiphop. So early, in fact, that thoughts of hanging it up must creep into rappers’ minds no sooner than the last reveler has stumbled out of that first-album release party. The clueless refuse to accept the fleeting nature of their fame, record one album too many—if not more—and leave the game in disgrace. But the savvy are able to intuit their career’s peak and make plans to bow out before they flame out.
The Roots have had quite some time to plot their withdrawal from the limelight. In a genre so unfriendly to the experienced, the guys have had an outstanding run. They’ve been recording music for a decade—longer than that if you count their turn as the Square Roots, Organix—and are one of the most consistent and influential acts in hiphop. Rap-fusion pioneers, they’ve remained dedicated to the genre’s live-show tradition, and, more important, haven’t dropped a slummin’ album yet.
But recent events suggest that the Illadelphians have been preparing for their erasure. Rumored dissension has gradually reduced their once swollen ranks to a streamlined quartet of core members: lyricist Black Thought, drummer ?uestlove, keyboard player Kamal Gray, and bassist Leonard Hubbard. Their participation earlier this year in the Okayplayer Tour, which they hosted more than headlined, seemed a bit too selfless even for them: The group backed Little Brother, J-Live, and sundry Def Jukies, offering only a few snippets from its upcoming album. And then there’s the Chappelle Factor. How could a noteworthy album be in the works with ?uestlove spending all of his time helping Dave flesh out his sketches?
Despite all the suggestions to the contrary, The Tipping Point, the Roots’ sixth studio album, doesn’t feel like a swan song. The disc does revisit the group’s beginnings—longtime fans will hear bits of 1996’s Illadelph Halflife and, to a lesser extent, 1995’s Do You Want More?!!!??!—which is a telltale sign of a final statement. But ultimately, the nostalgic vibe comes across less as an attempt to part ways with hiphop than as one to get reacquainted with it.
It’s most obvious on the three-minute freestyle “Web,” which offers a slant on an old pared-down hiphop setup: a drum kit and a mike. Thought spits choppy sentences without the aid of a hook or, it seems, even a pause for breath. “I’m a decorated vet/I regulate and wreck,” he rhymes. “Never hesitated yet/I’m getting heavyweighted checks/If you would dare ask if I’m dedicated—yes/I spit live rounds that’ll penetrate a vest.” The track is an indirect tribute to the pioneer of complicated verse, Rakim, whose delivery Thought uncannily recalls. It’s also likely the most straightforward hiphop song ever to grace a disc on Geffen.
Credit that to the Roots’ newfound market power. Its last two albums, 1999’s Things Fall Apart and 2002’s Phrenology, transformed the group from underground favorite into mainstream success story, in the process proving that bankability doesn’t necessarily come at the price of artistic integrity. With their latest, the Roots have relied on their commercial clout to broker the creation of a hiphop album that is wonderfully simple and clean—a tough sell, given hiphop’s current fascination with bells and whistles.
Indeed, The Tipping Point, which takes its name from New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 book about the ability of the smallest group of people to facilitate major change, has been billed as an effort to strip hiphop down to its bare essentials. It’s a goal many albums claim pre-release, but a strange one for a record by the Roots—a band of musicians who have always cashed in on the novelty of their instrument-playing in a genre created by kids who never took piano lessons.
But this is a history lesson of sorts—one that Thought & Co. manage to keep from becoming academic by plucking sounds from hiphop’s many heydays and giving them a palpable air of celebration. “Web,” for example, flows seamlessly into the dance-floor-ready “Boom!,” which contains a shaking, guttural chorus that duplicates the rumbling bass of a hiphop show heard from blocks away. If the former harks back to a time when lyrics moved into a new realm of complexity, the latter shows us when the beat caught up.
Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap both appear on “Boom!,” but not by contributing new rhymes. Instead, verses from Kane’s “Raw ’91” and G Rap’s “Poison” are spliced in throughout. Thought could have delivered the classic lyrics himself, or the Roots could have brought the aging legends into the studio to lay down vocals that would have almost certainly failed to capture their former greatness. They were wise not to: Listening to these powerful voices combine with a minimal manipulation very nearly recaptures the giddiness of first hearing them a decade-and-a-half ago. Meanwhile, the Roots’ musical update—escalating horns and a fluid breakbeat—keeps the cut from sounding dated.
Other bright spots include “Star,” a “virtual duet” with Sly and the Family Stone that borrows heavily from their “Everybody Is a Star”; “Stay Cool,” which is built around the same lush, organ-laced slice of Al Hirt’s “Harlem Hendoo” that De La Soul used for its “Ego Trippin’ (Pt. 2)”; and “In Love With the Mic,” which brings humor to the tired old hiphop-is-my-only-bitch metaphor. “Moonwalk/Talking on a two-way pager/To your main thing/Getting me to Captain Save-A,” Thought raps on the last. “I won’t backslide ’cause I’ll be a failure/The mic/Grip tight like it’s my genitalia.”
The song recalls the days when rappers didn’t have to worry about their street cred drying up if they dared poke fun at themselves or have a ball making a record. Appropriately enough, Chappelle shows up on “Mic” to repay ?uestlove for all that drumming on demand with a parody of the spiels cocky rappers give before recording sessions (“Alright y’all, a hundred grand says I get it in one take. That’s right, baby, one-take Dave!”) and various other party-in-progress yelps and hollers. In fact, there might be a little too much yelpin’ and hollerin’: The hardcore-meets-hoedown track is just one intrusive screech away from ruin.
Other tracks fail to live up to the album’s mission. On Phrenology, the Roots made the mistake of releasing the lackluster “Break You Off” as the first single. With The Tipping Point, the error is repeated with Scott Storch’s ho-hum, sequencer-driven “Don’t Say Nuthin’.” The producer’s other contribution to The Tipping Point, “Duck Down,” isn’t much better, sounding much more radio-friendly and Timbalandish than a Roots track really should.
Still, even the missteps here are more rousing than much of what’s on the airwaves masquerading as hiphop, and that goes double for the rabble-rousing numbers. The somber “Why (What’s Goin’ On?)” attempts to rap the vote through some grim state-of-the-nation imagery, and the apocalyptic, reggae-inflected “Guns Are Drawn” is an even more forceful rallying cry, advocating pointing a figurative barrel at the establishment: “Military target practicin’/They fiddin’ a write another Patriot Act again,” Thought rhymes. “The days is short, the nights is long/The fight goes on/The pistols and the pipes are drawn/ C’mon.” Besides, all disappointments are erased by the time the album reaches the “Outro,” a slick retooling of George Kranz’s “Din Daa Daa.” Fucking with the 1983 club hit has become a favorite activity of DJs, but the Roots have taken the anthem of strippers and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo enthusiasts everywhere and improved on it by removing the Reagan-era cheese factor and creating something closer to a hiphop scat session.
The mere presence of this song, a gem popularized by a laughable movie musical that presented a bastardized portrayal of hiphop culture, neatly summarizes The Tipping Point’s central theme: that just a kernel of brilliance can prove revolutionary. Throughout, the Roots update classic music without trivializing it and showcase their own progression without thwarting their efforts to create a back-to-basics album. The Tipping Point should provide all the proof anyone might need that once in a while, the rules of hiphop longevity just don’t apply.CP