February 23, 2014

The Roots "Things Fall Apart" (February 23, 1999)

On their fourth effort, Things Fall Apart, the Roots find themselves on the cusp of a commercial breakthrough. Like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, the Roots have always stood for innovation in hip hop, both sonically and lyrically. Borrowing the title of Chinua Achebe's literary masterpiece, Things continues the evolution the Roots have undergone since their independently released debut, Organix (Motive/MCA, 1993). To paraphrase Chuck D, from the Roots' album, Illadelph Halflife in 1996, the Roots are an enigma, perhaps even to themselves. They certainly remain one to critics, who have tried to pigeonhole the group ever since they released Organix and their critically acclaimed sophomore album, Do You Want More?!!!??! (Geffen, 1995). Stuck with the "alternative" label, the Roots were then falsely accused of restructuring their sound on Illadelph to gain a harder, more authentically "hip hop" sound. Fusing the free-throwing live instrumentations of their first two albums with the methodical, yet still revolutionary, in-house production and engineering techniques of Illadelph, the Roots have finally perfected their sound. This synthesis, coupled with the vocal gymnastics of Black Thought & Malik B., makes for one of the most complete albums of the decade.

The plush beats on "The Next Movement" and stripped-down acoustics on "Dynamite" exemplify that wholeness. "Dynamite," which features the background harmonies of next-school soul group Jazzyfatnastees, captures the Roots at their most nuanced. Using structure, chord changes, and unorthodox time signatures, the Roots take techniques associated with hard bop-era jazz and put them in a hip hop context. The seemingly simple guitar licks on "Dynamite" provide another example of the group's creativity. Black Thought, using his voice as an instrument, stutters his way up the scales, while the guitar accents his vocal riffs. Even when they take a more traditional approach, the Roots manage to raise the standards for hip hop. The aptly named "Adrenaline" features a sparse piano loop that spurs the wordsmiths to new heights. Thought, Malik B., Dice Raw, and newcomer Beans each outshine the other in a battle of lyrical one-upmanship. But it's the tracks' subtleties that separate the group from their peers. Rahzel channels live turntablism through his transcendent beat-boxing, while Thought and his cohorts display stunning verbal calisthenics. The Roots have reconfigured the pyramid again, placing themselves at the top. Although some things in hip hop continue to fall apart, the Roots pick up the pieces and construct a new order. - Vibe, 1999.