Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images
On 'Things Fall Apart,' The Roots Deepened Hip-Hop
We joke about it — there's that "J. Cole went platinum with no features" meme—but some of rap's overachievers end up doing just that. The Roots were perhaps one of the first acts in hip-hop history where maybe it wasn't immediately clear what the song was about. And while rap had always been built on borrowing and homage and one-upping, all sorts of open-source tools and watching a chant or catchphrase evolve into something else in real time, the Philadelphia group felt like its first meta commentators, deconstructing the medium as a whole and its tropes within their work itself. Lord knows they didn’t condescend to their peers (which matters when your lead vocalist is named Black Thought), though they occasionally indulged their bratty side (see the 1996 "rap video manual" "What They Do").
But just by existing, the Roots are often viewed as a fount of respectability politics: "They're rappers who play real instruments!" you’ve surely overheard one exasperated white rock fan say to another. Actually, let's zoom out entirely. How they're really viewed in 2019 is as Jimmy Fallon's house band and their elastic ability to perform on any guest's song, no matter the genre, possibly diminishes their artistic identity rather than augmenting it. Despite the fact the Roots tie Jay-Z as rap’s most consistent album artists for 20 years now, they’re rarely part of The Conversation.
You could say people so take the Roots' greatness for granted that whatever amazing thing they're currently saying or doing exists in a different universe than the one engaging luminaries from Drake to Nicki Minaj to Future to Juice WRLD. Or you could say they aren’t considered great at all. Black Thought is often referred to as an "MC's MC," which by definition means he’s undervalued by the audience. No one doubts Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson is a world-class drummer, but he's treated more as the Dave Grohl of rap, a genial everydude who’s friends with everybody and checks in with a predictable new album every few years. Sure, but only if greatness in itself is boringly predictable.
Things Fall Apart, which just turned 20, is rightfully celebrated as a groundbreaking collection of music; it courted real sales, and had a real hit. "You Got Me," a Jill Scott co-write that Erykah Badu's hook curled around like smoke, won a real GRAMMY in 1999. And 2002's expansive, almost psychedelically varied follow-up, Phrenology, continued the hit streak with "The Seed 2.0," though it was a larger staple of alt-rock stations' playlists than rap ones. And then quietly, respectfully, their next six studio albums were damned with strong reviews and consistent sales in the five-to-six digits without threatening radio or year-end lists ever again. This was particularly unjust for the incredible hot streak of Game Theory, Rising Down, and How I Got Over from 2006 to 2010, but the quality of The Tipping Point, undun, and …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is also taken for granted.
Things Fall Apart is not the Roots' masterpiece, but rather the beginning of them making masterpieces. Its unforgettable cover art aside, with two terrified black people fleeing white police on foot, most of the album's depth is musical. Before Genius existed, Questlove was happy to fill the Roots' CD booklets with footnotes to help any listener place the cymbal-heavy opener "Table of Contents (Parts 1 & 2)" as a tribute to the "sloppy tambourine" of Marley Marl and "horrible mixing" of the Jungle Brothers. The drums on "Step Into the Realm" keep fading out as an homage to the breaks our heroes had to loop as kids from the ends of other songs where the only isolated drum sounds they could grab would fade out. The backing track of "Without a Doubt" is built entirely from a sample of their fellow hometown hero Schoolly-D.
Old-school rap was the foundation of Things Fall Apart, down to the back-and-forth mic-trading between Black Thought and Mos Def on "Double Trouble." But the hyper-time drum-and-bass that Questlove lays under the final chorus of "You Got Me," J Dilla's creaky deep-crate jazz on "Dynamite!" and the Jazzyfatnastees' hocketing vocals on "The Next Movement" were all expanding the sonic palates of millennial rap fans. The group embraced their progressivism visually, too, building on the subversive "What They Do" with two more Charles Stone III-directed videos: "You Got Me" remixed Radiohead's infamously open-ended "Just" clip, while the mini visual marvels of “The Next Movement,” rival anything Spike Jonze directed in the '90s.
The album cover and title of the Roots' third album were perhaps better suited to their darker later work, which became crucially political, but at least it established an urgency for the group, one they deserve to get back. Because the true theme song of Things Fall Apart is the centerpiece "Act Too (The Love of My Life)," whose titular inamorata is hip-hop itself, and that song's own music sounded like a successor to "The Cosby Show" theme, which at one time was another example of Philly pride. Making an album about how much you love what you do doesn’t sound like a radical concept, necessarily. But it’s an uplifting one, and when it busts open the doors that permit you to do so much more of it, well, that’s the beginning of a revolution, no?