Tuesday, August 25, 2009

August 25: The Roots, "Things Fall Apart"

Artist: The Roots
Album: Things Fall Apart
Year: 1999
Label: MCA

All genres of music must progress at some point, or they will simply die away in what can see as musical Darwinism. Though many may not see it, there have been three very distinct phases of the hip hop genre. After the initial rise of hip hop which lasted until the late 1980's, hip hop moved into the "gangsta" era, and then, as the 1990's closed out, there began a rise of what can most easily term "alternative" hip hop music. In this third phase, artists began to push the limits on what short of music and rhymes could define the genre, and this simultaneously occurred alongside the emergence of a large number of "conscious" emcees. Perhaps the most important group in this new style of hip hop was a group of artists who preferred to mix together live instrumentation along with the traditional DJ-based elements of hip hop music. Combining this new musical approach with brilliant lyrics, Philadelphia based hip hop icons, The Roots, quickly rose to be one of the most innovative and highly respected groups in the history of the genre. With elements of jazz, blues, and soul music, there has simply never been another group to pull off the style as perfectly as The Roots. Though every album the group has released is an absolute essential, it is their 1999 release, Things Fall Apart, that is nothing short of a musical masterpiece and easily one of the most important records in the history of hip hop music.

While the music is the same, there are actually five different covers to the album, each of which represents a clear depiction of the the struggle of African American society. The version pictured above is not only the version that I have always owned, but it was also included in the 2005 book, The Greatest Album Covers Of All Time. Things Fall Apart was undoubtedly the album that broke The Roots into the mainstream, though it is in fact the groups' forth full length release. Powered by the Grammy winning single, "You Got Me," the album went on to sell nearly one million copies, and it remains a cornerstone of hip hop music. The song itself features the entire group playing masterfully, but it also features vocals by Erykah Badu and Eve, though the original vocals were written and performed by Jill Scott. This change was a demand from MCA records, as at the time, Scott had not yet risen to fame and the label wanted a more "high profile" artist on the album. The change works brilliantly, though Scott performed with equal impact during The Roots tour to support the album. This ease in changing of artists is largely due to the fact that The Roots themselves produced the album, and therefore the nuances of each song are never lost. With the amount of music that is featured on every track, along with the varied vocals, there are very few artists who have been able to so perfectly present the sheer amount of sound as brilliantly as The Roots.

The Roots were founded by schoolmates Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter and Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. It is Questlove's distinctive drumming style that powers a majority of the groups' music, and his love for jazz music gives the music a mood like no other group in hip hop. Questlove would take his love for jazz even further in 2001, recording the self-titled jazz album, The Philadelphia Experiment. Having worked with everyone from Madonna to Iggy Pop, there are few artists in the current music scene who are as well respected as Questlove. Bassist Leonard "Hub" Hubbard spent fifteen years as a member of The Roots, and it is very much his interaction with Questlove that makes the music's mood constantly slide between jazzy and funky. Though he may be best known for playing the riff on Dr. Dre's monster hit, "Still D.R.E.," keyboard master Scott Storch was also an original member of The Roots, and plays throughout Things Fall Apart. His ability to find the grooves created by the rhythm section and spin it with a pop appeal is one of the most addictively enjoyable aspects of The Roots' music. On a few tracks, Storch plays violin, and the keyboards are in fact handled by none other than R&B singer, D'Angelo. Also featured on the album are the dynamic duo of Rhazel and Scratch who would leave the group soon after the albums' release and make their own, amazing albums. Though there are a number of other musicians on the album, the truth of the matter is, regardless of who is playing, the music found on Things Fall Apart is never anything short of phenomenal, and it keeps The Roots in a category all of their own.

Equal to the number of musicians on the album is the number of emcees who appear throughout the album. While a majority of the rhymes are performed by Black Thought and Malik B, the other artists who appear on the songs is very much a "who's who" of the conscious hip hop moment. Mos Def, Common, Dice Raw, Beanie Siegel, and the aforementioned Eve and Erykah Badu all make appearances throughout the album, yet their rhymes are so brilliant, it seems as if each of them have been performing with the group for years. This ability to integrate any emcee style into the songs is a testament to the amazing ability within the group, as well as the universal appeal of the music. The other aspect that runs through the rhymes of each emcee is the powerful, blunt lyrical content, as the social criticisms and observations found on every track are both superb and sobering. At the front of these stunning rhymes is Black Thought, who leads the way with some of the most original and thought provoking lines in hip hop history when he delivers rhymes like, "...what does it all mean? What's it all for? With knowledge of yourself, then you're through the first door...my people hungry and thirst for more next music explore, it's heavenly to your ebony daughter next door...so what you think The Roots get world respect for? The splendid authentic hip hop that's raw core..." Truth be told, there is not a verse on Things Fall Apart that is anything short of sensational, and the diverse style and delivery of emcees keeps the album fresh and makes it one of the greatest hip hop records ever.

One of the longest standing arguments against hip hop is that it lacks the "musical" element that defines what most consider "music." Destroying this wonderfully ignorant argument, Philadelphia hip hop innovators, The Roots, masterfully blend phenomenal musical performances with some of the most vivid, moving rhymes in hip hop history. Whether The Roots are paving new ground or throwing shout-out's to the past on tracks like "Double Trouble," it is clear that the name of the group is far more than just a name, as they truly understand where they came from, and Things Fall Apart is a true tribute to what makes hip hop music is fantastic. The flawless production of Questlove, who immaculately blends the DJ spinning with everything from string pieces to moody keyboard and basslines, further makes this record a truly stunning musical masterpiece. It is on Things Fall Apart where The Roots' potential finally appears to be complete, as the amazing, original sound that they had been experimenting with on their early records finally appears as a stunning, flawless musical revolution. Every song and album created by The Roots is truly a work of art that must be experienced to be fully appreciated, and none shine brighter than the sensational collection of musical compositions found on their monumental 1999 release, Things Fall Apart.

Standout tracks: "The Next Movement," "Double Trouble," and "You Got Me."

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