The Roots shine on new album, 'The Tipping Point'

by Sam Lederer | 9/23/04 5:00am

The Roots are by far the most diverse and innovative group to join the ranks of hip-hop's greats since A Tribe Called Quest. The Philadelphia-based rock/rap crew, led by drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson and Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter, pride themselves on being the self-titled "greatest" act in music today. And it is hard for critics to argue after listening to their latest album, "The Tipping Point."

The crew seamlessly melds old-school flavor with fresh flows, as heard on "Star/Pointro." Rather than simply burying the beat from the Sly and The Family Stone classic "Everybody Is a Star" beneath the weight of lengthy rhymes, The Roots allow the song to stand on its own. Black Thought spits lyrics while giving the chorus of the original song equal prominence.

It is this respect and knowledge of the past, combined with an all-star lineup of gifted rappers and talented musicians, that has allowed The Roots to enjoy widespread admiration from listeners. Even the choice of the album's title is obscure, yet cool. Malcolm Gladwell's 2002 book of the same name examines how cultural trends and ideas gain popularity and strength until they reach the "tipping point" and spread rapidly throughout the mainstream of society.

Indeed, it seems The Roots have reached such a point: after enjoying an underground following for most of their early career, the group struck gold with "The Seed 2.0," featuring Cody Chestnutt, off 2002's "Phrenology."

On this, their seventh album, the crew is at a critical juncture in their musical career: can they continue to storm the hip-hop scene with their genre-bending sound while maintaining their commercial success?

After listening to "Web" and "Boom!" one realizes that conventions of the hip-hop world do not apply to The Roots. It is quite audacious to produce a song composed completely of one rapper's freestyle. On "Web," though, the listener does not even notice the absence of a chorus or real beat, as the intensity of Black Thought's rhymes ensnare the listener's attention.

Even more boisterous is "Boom!" in which Trotter assumes the voices (amazingly I might add) of Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap.

The crew is also not afraid to take chances on a scale larger than the music community. On "Guns Are Drawn," Thought launches into a social commentary that is courageous at the least: "What you goin' do when the police state begin'?/ Well it already began but I guess it depends on what's really goin' on/ What's happening, huh?/ They gonna write another Patriot Act again." In a year when the entertainment industry has seen numerous fines for indecency and in an election year, Trotter's words are both daring and powerful.

Balancing these socially and politically-conscious lyrics is a jabbing, comical element that is never lost on The Roots. Indeed, the crew uses these cutting rhymes to establish their presence at the top of the hip-hop game.

On the album's single, "Don't Say Nuthin'" Trotter unleashes a vigorous attack on popular "real" MCs: "Got tears, got blood, got sweat, leaking out of the pen/ Y'all fake niggas not setting a trend/ We never listen to them/ It's like trying to take a piss in the wind."

The beats on "The Tipping Point" get somewhat repetitive, as Thompson's trademark harsh drum lines form the backbone of many of the songs on the album. This uniformity, however, is counterbalanced by a variety of interesting hooks and standout beats. Indeed, the low drawl of "Don't Say Nuthin'" and the cool delivery of the hook on "Guns" provides the listener with another glimpse into the range and creativity of The Roots.

If recent history is any indicator, The Roots should continue breaking barriers and meeting, indeed surpassing, expectations. 1999 produced one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all-time, with The Roots' "Things Fall Apart." In 2002, the Philly crew scored big with their hot selling album, "Phrenology."

At 2003's Bonnaroo Music Festival, The Roots gave perhaps the surprise, and one of the best, sets of the weekend, as they riffed on Beethoven, A Tribe Called Quest and Salt 'N' Pepa.

What the future holds for this group is unclear; but one can be assured that The Roots will not back down.