The Roots’ fourth album, Things Fall Apart, begins with a skit from Spike Lee’s Mo Better Blues. Two characters, played by Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes, debate the reasons for jazz’s lack of support among African-Americans. Washington complains that if jazz artists had to depend on African-Americans to fund their careers, they’d starve. Snipes counters that the reason African-Americans don’t support jazz is that the artists don’t play what the people want to hear. Since their mass-market debut, the Roots have become specialists at playing what the people don’t want to hear.
Originally billed as “organic hiphop jazz,” the Roots’ mass-market debut, Do You Want More?!!!??!, was wholly ignored by the popular-music world. Sales were abysmal. Their follow-up effort, Illadelph Halflife, attempted to reach the masses by incorporating a sound closer to traditional hiphop. The album did slightly better but still failed to reach gold status. Much to their dismay, the Roots remained a nonentity in the minds of most pop fans.
But the Roots have always played the type of music that seemingly no one wants but every hiphop head needs. Forget the dismal sales that accompanied Do You Want and Illadelph. Forget the fact that they’ve never been featured on the cover of The Source or Vibe. Forget the minuscule sprinkling of black faces that you see at their concerts. The cold, undemocratic fact of the matter is that the Roots have produced some of the best hiphop in recent memory.
Do You Want debuted during a period when artists like Jeru the Damaja and Wu-Tang Clan were reclaiming the cloak of creativity for the East Coast’s hiphop scene. Of all the classic albums that were produced during that periodincluding Black Moon’s Enta da Stage and Nas’ Illmaticnone were more surprising and adventurous than Do You Want. The Roots featured a pumping live band, which brought spontaneity to an art that had become mired in mechanized loops. The group’s live shows quickly became legendary and are now considered second only to those of almighty blast-master KRS-One. Perhaps most importantly, lead MC Black Thought was an awesome lyricist who could move with uncontrived ease from battle rhymes like “Distortion to Static” to love ballads like “Silent Treatment.”
But when Do You Want tanked, the group dropped the “organic hiphop jazz” stilo for a grittier sound. Illadelph was a collage of rugged tracks and smash-mouth lyrics. The Roots traded in the laid-back vibe of “Lazy Afternoon” and the jazzy swing of “I Remain Calm” for the mightily percussive sound of “Clones” and the dirty keys of “Episodes.” Even on seemingly mellow cuts like “What They Do,” Black Thought viciously took aim at the rap world: “You wanna be a man, then stand on your own/To MC requires skill, I demand some shown/I let the frauds keep frontin’ and roam like a cellular phone/ Far from home, givin’ crowds what they wantin’.” There was nothing pretty about Illadelpheven the love song, “The Hypnotic,” ended with the death of Black Thought’s love interest. The sound was less spontaneous
and more traditional, but as a standard East Coast hiphop album, Illadelph was grand.
Critics lauded the group, and hiphop purists canonized both albums as classics. And while other artists who had debuted during the same neo-golden-age period as the Roots seemed to be stumblingfor reasons that ranged from label problems (Black Moon) to turning up dead (Biggie)the Roots consistently held it down for the purists. But, as for most rap artists, respect without paper to back it up simply didn’t do it for the Roots. “I don’t ever want to be typecast into being the ‘artist’s artist,’” lamented ?estlove in a recent article in The Source. “I don’t wanna be the Fishbone of hiphop, the world’s greatest group that never got heard.”
Bob Marley said, “A good man is never honored in his own country.” Emerson said, “Greatness appeals to the future.” Do You Want and Illadelph both seem to support those statements. But now, with two brilliant albums and no big-Willie props to show for it, the Roots seem to have had it with bullshit philosophy. They want a gold record. And, damn it, they want it now.
The Roots have a new home at MCA. The group’s old label, Geffen, was notorious for its underpromotion of the band; MCA has been busy building a buzz that’s unprecedented for the Roots. The new album features four record covers and a captivating video for the first single, “You Got Me.” Write-ups in The Source and XXL have predicted that Things will be the Roots’ breakthrough album. The Roots say that all the pieces are in place so that the world can finally get in on one of rap’s best-kept secrets.
Well, not exactly. The hype that Things has generated might lead you to believe that the album is a classic. But even if it is a rap classic, it certainly isn’t a Roots classic.
To be clear, Things is a damn good album. Black Thought flows with his usual ease and drops a fair share of lovely lyrical gems. In some places, the production is as excitingDJ Premier excludedas any that’s been heard in hiphop recently. Yet the album suffers from overreliance on hooks that all seem to follow the same formula. Also, more often than not, the beats sound a bit uninspired. Perhaps most puzzling is the fact that the album continues a trend that began with Illadelph, a movement away from the spontaneity of live music to a more predictable sound.
Things moves at only one speed. With the exception of two cuts, lyricists Black Thought and Malik B have only one thing to talk aboutinjuring MCs. Almost all the cuts are battle raps, and the soundscape is produced to complement them. By the end of the album, you get the feeling you’ve heard the same song remixed five different times. Cuts like “100% Dundee” and “Adrenaline!” (featuring the massively overrated Beenie Siegal) simply blur into each other.
In this day and age, only a few MCs, such as Redman, can pull off a an entire album overloaded with battle rhymes. The Roots have until now made a career by analyzing relationships, street crime, and the dismal state of hiphop. What makes Black Thought such an awesome MC is his ability to talk about almost anything and still effectively communicate. That versatility is vastly underused on Things.
Yet despite its addiction to monotony, the album still contains enough jewels to make it a decent buy. “The Next Movement” is a finely crafted track that meshes driving keys with a light vocal scat. While not offering his best lyrical performance, Black Thought still brings a capable flow to the cut.
“You Got Me,” the group’s first commercial hit, succeeds despite Erykah Badu’s nearly unintelligible hook. Although it’s not as captivating as the Roots’ original ballad “Silent Treatment,” the cut is distinguished by Black Thought’s narrative skills and his ability to perfectly capture the tragicomedy of relationships: “We knew from the start that things fall apart and tend to shatter/She like, ‘That shit don’t matter’ when I get home get at her.” The song ends without resolution but leaves the listener with Badu’s haunting crooning and ?estlove’s jungle percussion.
The album’s centerpiece is the old-school-influenced “Double Trouble.” No two unaffiliated MCs in rap mesh better than Mos Def and Black Thought; Mos Def’s comical lyricism contrasts perfectly with Black Thought’s gritty flow. Mos Def is easily the most exciting MC to emerge in the past three years, and he doesn’t disappoint on his Roots debut: “Yo, I stop fools and drop jewels but never run it/Rock mikes so nice, I make your stock price plummet.”
Things’ simplified sonic backdrop and catchy hooks seem to be subtle attempts to reach a crowd that will bring the group a gold record, but the album is far from a sellout. Yet the Roots’ insistence that the album’s sales will determine whether the group is successful or not is a dangerous proposition; it could go gold on hype alone. If Things sells, it will be heralded as the Roots’ best efforta foolish assertion, given the creativity infused into their previous efforts. Rap offers the most glaring evidence that popularity and quality are not synonymous. The Roots are making a mistake if they confuse the two.CP
The Roots play the 9:30 Club March 25.