Monday, February 23, 2009

Ten Years Gone: The Roots - Things Fall Apart

This entry is part of an ongoing series in where I take a look back at landmark films and albums released 10 years ago.

Before Things Fall Apart, The Roots were merely respected artists that true hip hop heads name dropped to be in the know. Today, they've reached such notoriety and fame that even your mom will probably know who they are now that they'll be Jimmy Fallon's house band when he takes over Late Night on NBC. It all started with the lead single, "You Got Me," featuring neo-soul poster child, Erykah Badu. The track was something uncommon in hip hop, a love song with genuine affection that dealt with more than just bedding someone and even explored the paranoia that often arises in relationships. The song was even more uncommon on the airwaves and one of the first alternative hip hop songs to breakthrough in the late 90's, ushering in a previously undiscovered side of music for America and paving the way for the success of Common's "The Light," Talib Kweli's "Get By" and the careers of Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco. "You Got Me" still stands to this day as a classic and remains The Roots' most popular song among the general public.

As great as "You Got Me" was, Things Fall Apart proved to be even more surprising and rewarding. The Roots had made solid albums before, but this was the album where they let their freak flag fly and their experimental side was fully embraced. If you thought Phrenology and Game Theory were trippy, blame Things Fall Apart since that's where it started.

The album sets its identity quickly with the opening track, "Act Won (Things Fall Apart)," which mixes dialogue from Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues with snippets of noise and older Roots songs. It then segues into "Table of Contents (Parts 1 & 2)," a sonically dirty ode to classic rugged hip hop in the first part and then switches back to their familiar jazzy hip hop style for Part 2. Not a chorus to be found between the two of them, just an amped up flow to get you hyped the way only a good hip hop song can do.

The adventurous side of The Roots is all over the album and even in places you may not have thought if not for ?uestlove's extensive liner notes. That hollow sound you hear throughout "The Spark"? It's not a keyboard, but a vocal being recorded in a hallway. Half of what you hear on "Ain't Sayin' Nothin' New" is actually loops of keyboards and vocals being played backwards. With techniques like that, you get the sense that there is a great book waiting to be made about the creation of this album and all the bells and whistles that were included.

Aside from that, Things Fall Apart stands as a superior hip hop album more than anything. The Roots had never had any problems with crafting great tracks, but the overall cohesion made this the first album that felt more like an experience than just a collection of good grooves. Interludes and extended song vamps help to hold it all together among the unfiltered, straightforward hip hop cuts. The album is so stacked with terrific songs that it's hard to find even one weak spot. "The Next Movement" adds studio wizardy to the sound of their first, jazzier album, Do You Want More?!!!??!. "Dynamite" is one of J Dilla's best productions, which is saying a lot. "Don't See Us" features a Radiohead reference and a guitar arpeggio, but still remains hardcore. Add excellent contributions by Mos Def to the Run DMC influenced "Double Trouble," Common on "Act Too (The Love Of My Life)," and Beanie Sigel to the energetic "Adrenaline!" and you've got an album that's a wonderful piece of work.

It's one of those rare albums that makes you fall in love with a genre all over again. From the lyrics to the production, there is rarely a dull moment. The Roots' love for hip hop has always been apparent, but they made their greatest love letter to the genre with Things Fall Apart. The influence of the old school is always present without overpowering. It transports you to a time in hip hop where there was still room for creativity and a heavy emphasis on skills was required. When you look at the music scene before and after 1999, Things Fall Apart could be seen as sort of leveling the playing field in hip hop. While it was still a good time for hip hop overall, what The Roots did at the time would have been considered underground and would have not found much of an audience on MTV or BET. Things Fall Apart debuted at #4 on the Billboard 200, won a Grammy award for "You Got Me" and eventually went gold. These accomplishments seemed shocking at the time, but now it's not out of the ordinary for former underground artists like Common and Talib Kweli to debut in the top 10. For those who like their hip hop to be a bit more earthy and intellectual, thank Things Fall Apart for giving birth to more options.

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