Long before they became Jimmy Fallon’s house band, The Roots were one of the chief proponents of alternative hip-hop. And with this 1999 release (their fourth), they managed to capture their famously explosive live sound and break through to mainstream audiences. It couldn’t have happened on a more deserving record. “You Got Me”, the band’s excellent collaboration with Erykah Badu, was the hit (and a Grammy winner), but it’s one of many gems on the 15-track album.
Things Fall Apart is what music fans might call a grower. On first listen, it’s almost unwelcoming. Weird time signatures and abrupt shifts in tone punctuate abrasive rhyming and harsh, sometimes cacophonous lyrics. Indeed, any album that begins with this piece of dialogue from Spike Lee’s film Mo’ Better Blues demands to be met on its own terms: “The people don’t come because you grandiose motherfuckers don’t play shit that they like. If you played the shit that they liked the people would come. Simple as that.”
No, TFA is not for the faint of heart. The album takes its title from Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel of the havoc wrought by colonialism in an African village (late in the album, the band name-checks the legendary author on the propulsive “100% Dundee”.) It’s a fitting title for an album that describes, in unflinching detail, the fractious nature of modern urban life. The band also rails against mediocrity in mainstream hip-hop, most notably on the scorching “Ain’t Sayin’ Nothin’ New”.
But the most startling thing about this album is the utter inventiveness and power of the music. Reaching back to hip-hop’s musical forebears (primarily jazz and funk), The Roots craft a potent sound collage for their trenchant manifesto. Along the way, they tap a who’s who of progressive hip-hop (Mos Def, Common, Jay Dee). The result is nothing less than a dark, urban opera for the new millennium.
First track, “Table of Contents” sets the musical tone, beginning as a fast-paced, subterranean rap by lead MC Black Thought, then transforming into a mellow rhyme by Malik B. That quirky beginning flows into one of the best singles in The Roots’ catalogue, “The Next Movement”. A handclap-happy ditty, featuring soulful female backing vocals, it also boasts a lethally catchy chorus (“we got the hot hot music, the hot music”). Horror movie keyboards provide the backdrop for jarring rhymes by Malik B. and Black Thought on the bleak “Step Into the Realm”.
With all due respect to the rest of the band and the guest stars who people the album, Thought and Malik B. are the soul of this record. Whether rapping alone or trading verses with each other (and various guests), their lyrical dexterity and quicksilver flow prove irresistible, even for the uninitiated. Just listen to Malik’s laidback delivery on “The Spark”. On “Dynamite!”, Thought and guest star Dice Raw create their own language chanting, “Touch this ill-a-5th dynamite” in the chorus, while a jazzy guitar riff plays in the background.
An album of 15 songs might threaten to drag in the middle, but there’s no hint of that here. Midway through Things, Mos Def joins Thought on “Double Trouble”, a playful old school hip-hop warning to posers: “Either stand tall or sit the fuck down.” Later, Common shows up on “Act Too…Love of My Life”, a reprisal of his classic “I Used to Love H.E.R.” Finger snaps and warm keyboards lead into a meditation on the two MCs’ love for hip-hop, before the song crests on a transcendent string passage. The rhymefest continues on the propulsive, bass-driven “Adrenaline”, in which Malik B., Thought, Beanie Seagal, and Dice Raw each take a verse, charting a dark narrative of urban life.
As hit singles go, “You Got Me” might be one of the most deserving in hip-hop history. A love story told from two perspectives, the most notable thing about this track isn’t Erykah Badu’s guest vocal; it’s the stunning drum n bass beat unveiled by ?uestlove toward the song’s end, raising the stakes musically, while closing the tune on a note of heightened tension.
The album closes with a stark poem by frequent Roots collaborator Ursula Rucker. On the seven-minute “Return to Innocence Lost,” set to eerie piano strokes and mournful guitar picking, Rucker recounts the life and death of her brother on Philadelphia’s unforgiving streets.
At the end of this epic, 80-minute album, The Roots leave listeners with no answers — easy or otherwise — just a bold musical manifesto that haunts long after the last note plays.