They could have called it Young, Gifted and Black, were the name not otherwise in use. Not until Robert Glasper convened his Black Radio sessions in 2012 would there be such a significant summit meeting of black American bohemians: Things Fall Apart finds The Roots’ roster swelling to include Erykah Badu, Common, J Dilla, Mos Def, Jazzy Jeff, Beanie Sigel, and, though you won’t know it unless you consult the liner notes, D’Angelo. Recorded during the same sessions that spawned Badu’s Mama’s Gun and D’s Voodoo — classic records in their own right — the Roots’ album feels of a piece with the other two in how it offers a deep, immersive world of endless funk, of grooves that shift and vary but never lose their seductive sway. It codifies the neo-soul ethos while capping off a decade-plus of positive-thinking rap, expanding the jazzy inventions of A Tribe Called Quest with a fuller, lusher sound. And though the record’s greatest charm is its effortless fluidity and ease, it’s not nearly as soft as it’s occasionally made out to be — the rhythms are easygoing but crisp, the songs unforced but not unfocused. Note that for its clear intention toward positivity, the record isn’t quite as “mad topical” as one songs claims it to be: Black Thought dismisses the phony MCs who “Ain’t Sayin’ Nothin’ New” and “Love of My Life” affirms hip-hop as a potentially life-saving innovation for young black men with designs on escaping the dire circumstances of their birth, but for the most part Things Fall Apart proves its point through its technical mastery and endless imagination, battle raps that exude intelligence and moral clarity without having to preach them.
Even with the obligatory thesis statement, five minutes of spoken-word poetry, and 70 minutes of music, Things Fall Apart feels alive with discovery and elastic with possibility.
Enlightenment is promised throughout, not as divine revelation but as conscious choice: It’s ours for the taking if only we have the nerve, and the Roots do on “Step Into the Realm,” an invitation to experience the sublime through art and through excellence. Malik B’s calling card here is “The Spark,” which finds him taking stock of his assets and vowing to channel them into something positive: “Now it’s time to spark shit.” Black Thought and Mos Def look backwards to look forward on their gloriously old-school tag-team anthem “Double Trouble,” and when Thought offers a lover’s confession to hip-hop (“I probably wouldn’t have made it if it wasn’t for you”) the record really finds its heart and its voice — a testament to the idea that hip-hop can be as empty or as transformative as we allow it to be. The classic here is the Badu-featuring “You Got Me,” a he-said/she-said love song that couches elegance and tradition in the language of rap and R&B, but the best number is “The Next Movement,” an impossibly sleek and hooky track that coalesces jazzy vibes, old-school rap attitude, and stunning pop craft. It’s also, let it be said, a blast — which pretty much goes for the whole album. Even with the obligatory thesis statement, five minutes of spoken-word poetry, and 70 minutes of music, Things Fall Apart feels alive with discovery and elastic with possibility. It codified a movement by reclaiming hip-hop’s past, and remaking it in the Roots’ own image.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.