Philadelphia’s The Roots have spent 13 years banging out organic hip-hop with real instruments and unquestionable swagger. They’ve also spent 13 years asking — consciously or not — the following question:
Can you be sonic pioneers with a radical sensibility and still get the club bumping?
The Roots have successfully straddled the border between underground heroes and mainstream dabblers, all leading to their latest release, The Tipping Point. A better question might be this: How well do The Roots combine traits seemingly at odds with each other, balance club hits with street credibility and mix hip-hop braggadocio with intelligent commentary?
The answers depend on the album. On their previous release, 2002’s Phrenology, the band simultaneously chased the slippery hit single and pushed its instrumental experimentation. Witness how that single, “Break You Off,” led strangely into “Water,” a sprawling work of gritty autobiography and musical meandering. But recording “Break You Off” was an unpleasant ordeal involving huge expenditures and rotating singers, all for a catchphrase single easily skipped over to get to the good stuff.
There was plenty of good stuff. The lo-fi, jangly guitar anthem “The Seed” ended up being the more interesting single, and the album’s finest moment came with “Thought at Work,” a stripped-down rhythmic assault over which MC Black Thought spewed with frenetic energy.
That same setup provides the high point on The Tipping Point, in a combination of two songs, “Web” and “Boom!” On this old school pair, drummer ?uestlove does what he does best, laying down wickedly crisp beats, while bassist Leonard Hubbard displays restraint with his sparse low-end kidney punches. All the space on “Web” gives Black Thought plenty of rhythmic room to mix politics and bluster: “With a portrait of Malcolm X on the door / while I’m eating MCs like a carnivore.” Then, on “Boom!,” he assumes different personalities for each verse.
The Tipping Point likewise reveals a band comfortable with schizophrenia. If Phrenology played like a disjointed sampler, The Tipping Point plays more like a proficient DJ’s mix. The album starts with a laidback semi-cover of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everybody is a Star,” which ends with jazzy instrumental slinkiness and leads into the inevitable spoken-word piece. The latter serves as a call to arms: “Art has not been drowned and life music / will thrust its branches up from the mud of wackness.”
What’s impressive is that such a potentially pretentious moment moves perfectly into “I Don’t Care,” a simplified guitar and bass funk romp. The hook is infectious and ridiculous, all about thumping bass, banging drum lines and blowing you away. Black Thought seems well aware that no matter his intended message, such catchy hooks and danceable music are what people want from commercial rap. As he says: “You don’t give a fuck you wanna pump the volume.” That song leads into the album’s first single, “Don’t Say Nuthin’,” on which he takes this indifference to meaning to its laughable extreme by unintelligibly mumbling the first half of each hook.
If such thematic and musical transitions give The Tipping Point a unified feel, so does the way it builds. “Star” humbly starts a crescendo that peaks with “Web” and “Boom!” It’s as if Black Thought’s just awoken on “Star,” but caffeine-sharp by mid-album. He offers plenty of party-pumping boastfulness, but he also takes topical jabs at the state of the nation on “Guns are Drawn” and “Why?” From the latter: “Young teen joins the marines, says he’ll die for the corps / inducted up into the government’s war as if the land of money and oil / funny how ain’t none of it yours.”
Music’s not all serious business for The Roots, though, and the songs here are as likely to make heads nod as to mess with them. The Tipping Point proves that The Roots are still comfortable questioning their own mixed identity. They let the music provide the answers.