In 1999, Philadelphia based hip-hop group, The Roots, would reach a turning point in their career. They would release their fourth studio album, Things Fall Apart, which would help them achieve mainstream success and solidify them as pioneers in rap culture. Prior to its release the band had amassed quite a following but it never really translated into commercial success that other acts saw. This album showcases their musical abilities with their thought provoking lyricism and genre-spanning beats. The group experimented with hip-hop, jazz and even psychedelic beats. It is considered a classic.
The album starts off on a powerful note with its first track “Act Won (Things Fall Apart)”. On this track, the group samples an audio from the 1990 Spike Lee film Mo’ Better Blues. The audio is a dialogue between two characters (Bleek Gilliam and Shadow Henderson) discussing the state of Jazz music. Gilliam is complaining to Henderson that Black people never come out to support their own at their shows, however Henderson rebuttals that it is not a race thing, instead that they don’t come because they don’t like what is being played. “The people don’t come because you grandiose motherfuckers don’t play shit that they like. If you played the shit that they liked, then the people would come. Simple as that.” The audio ends with a quote from Harry Allen, best known as the “Media Assassin” from rap group Public Enemy, “Inevitably, hip-hop records are treated as though they are disposable. They are not maximized as product, not to mention as art.” This track seems to be a reflection of the group themselves. They often felt underappreciated and tried to separate themselves from other mainstream artists. They considered themselves “real shit” for people who wanted it, and just like Henderson they didn’t want to sacrifice their creative integrity just to appeal to the masses. Those who liked their music would like it, and not support them solely because they are black.
Track three, “The Next Movement”, which features DJ Jazzy and Jazzyfatnastees, reiterates some of the themes The Roots have already established for themselves. They are not the “norm” nor do they strive to be. They represent ‘the next movement’ as their lyricism helps them stand out “once again it’s the Thought / the Dalai Lama of the mic, the prime minister Thought / this directed to whoever in listenin’ range”. The Roots recognize how pop-like Hip-Hop is becoming and strive to keep it authentic for its core-audiences, but creative enough for a casual listener.
The standout song on the album “You Got Me”, which features vocals from Erykah Badu and Eve, won The Roots a Grammy for best rap performance in 2000. They explore the topic of love and how although things fall apart, how they vow to remain there for eachother. “If you were worried ’bout where / I been or who I saw or / what club I went to with my homies / baby, don’t worry, you know that you got me,” Badu croons over the chorus. She is reassuring her love interest that he doesn’t have to worry about what she does because “he’s got her”. They spend the next two verses establishing how ‘things happen’ and people will try to get between them, “I seen people caught in love like whirlwinds / Listenin’ to they squads and listenin’ to girlfriends / That’s exactly the point where they whole world ends / Lies come in, that’s where that drama begins.” The chorus comes back and we here Badu once again reassuring her lover.
Things Fall Apart is an introspective album that captures trials of the world through poetic lyricism. The Roots are able to tackle topics such as love, identity, race and struggle over infectious melodic beats. Production of the album comes from legendary producers like ?uestlove (Questlove), J Dilla and Dj Premier. Through a mix of samples and live music, the band is able to flawlessly create a piece of work that is both creatively experimental and familiar. “Table of Contents (Part 1)” features a messy breakbeat and controlled chaos, showing the group’s dedication to challenging themselves creatively. The Roots were not only able to capture the essence of the 90s but showcase the musical abilities that made them unique. Almost three decades after its release, their messages still remain relevant today. If you appreciate Hip-Hop as an art then this album is a must-listen.
Taijahnai Scott is a student at the University of Georgia studying Marketing and Music Business with hopes of finding a job in music marketing post grad. Growing up she always had a deep love and cultural connection to music, especially Hip-Hop/Rap, Pop, R&B and NeoSoul. She is fascinated with all things music including the business aspect of it. She hopes to bring her opinions to the Athens music scene and expanding her tastes.