June 28, 2010

The Roots - Things Fall Apart (February 23, 1999)

Before I essentially take the month of July off from the blog (the tentative plan is for me to pop in from time to time with random updates in between Reader Reviews, but we'll see how that goes), I figured I would try to ride the high that How I Got Over created by jumping back into the discography of The Roots.  So the next logical step for me would be to move on to the collective's fourth album, Things Fall Apart.

During the three years between illadelph halflife and Things Fall Apart, The Roots found themselves suddenly traded up to the big leagues, but not by choice: the numerous mergers between record labels in the late 1990s resulted in many acts being shuffled around like a deck of cards, and the Roots Crew was essentially treated like the 'rules for playing poker' card that only's slightly more useful than the 'coupon for future purchase', as their label home DGC/Geffen sent them packing to parent company MCA, as they ultimately had no idea what to do with them.  (GZA/Genius, who was also a part of the Geffen family, saw this same move happen to his contract.  I've always wondered how The Genius and Black Thought shared a label home for so long, and yet never collaborated on anything.  That shit could have been epic.)

Undeterred, The Roots (led by idea men Thought and ?uestlove) continued to do what they did best: create music.  During the studio sessions that eventually formed their fourth album, the crew actually helped record three additional projects: D'Angelo's Voodoo, Common's Like Water For Chocolate, and Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun.  (Not coincidentally, all three artists appear on Things Fall Apart, although D'Angelo is stuck playing the bass in the background on one track, "The Spark".)  All four albums were produced under the banner The Soulquarians, a musical collective that shared the singular vision of bringing the soul back into aquariums the world over.  And they probably would have succeeded, too, had it not been for those meddling kids.

Things Fall Apart, whose title was borrowed from Chinua Achebe's novel, ended up being the crew's most successful album at the time, as its critical acclaim was, for the first time ever, matched by record sales of over five hundred thousand units.  This was no doubt caused by the project's first single, "You Got Me", which earned heavy-ish airplay on MTV (instead of being limited to just BET) and won a Grammy in 2000 for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.  It also didn't hurt that Things Fall Apart's first pressing was a limited edition, in which fans got to choose from one of five distinct and collectible album covers: the photo I chose above isn't the cover that The Roots eventually ended up going with for the remainder of their run, but it is the one I actually own, so let's go with that.

Okay, let's do this.

(The tracklisting presented below represents how the songs factor into the overall Roots catalog, and also match the numeration that ?uestlove has assigned to the tracks himself, so if you're new to the blog, please don't get too confused.  There will be a handy link at the end of the write-up that will help you catch up.)

This rap album intro sheds light on something that The Roots have been afraid of their entire career: the fact that it could all end in a second because of a lack of support, combined with the thought that nobody supports them because the music they make goes over the head of the general public. (It's interesting how a sound bite from Mo' Betta Blues can sum up that exact argument.) Hopefully, music historians will treat the back catalog of The Roots as much more than disposable.

Part 1 features Black Thought expending palpable energy over a tight-as-fuck lo-fi musical creation, making this an excellent reintroduction to the Roots Crew. My biggest complaint is that the track fades away while Tariq is still rhyming. (I ask again: what the fuck is the point of doing that shit?) Part 2, which immediately follows, features Malik B. going for dolo with unsuccessful results over a boring beat. Stick with the original recipe here, folks: the extra tasty crispy sequel will leave you feeling sad and empty.

The second single from Things Fall Apart, this was the song MCA used to remind listeners that The Roots were still primarily a rap group. Its jazzy feel doesn't quite mesh with the majority of this album, which prides itself with its more direct hip hop tone, but this song still fucking rocks. Think of “The Next Movement” as the calm before the storm, or the tasty appetizers served before your main course at Benihana. Even the video for this song is goofy as hell, and I mean that in the best way possible. Will Smith's former deejay (and fellow Philly resident) DJ Jazzy Jeff provides some cuts and scratches for good measure.

I've always felt the inclusion of this track on Things Fall Apart was a mistake: its low-key sound and apathetic performance by Malik B. doesn't fit within this album's rich color scheme, and placing it so early in the sequencing runs the risk of the actual album, um, falling apart. Had this been included on illadelph halflife, it would have made much more sense, but as it appears on here, this track is best utilized as a smoke break.

Meh. It troubles me to use that one-word review so early on, but then I remember what is still to come on Things Fall Apart, and my conscience feels that much better.

This J Dilla-laced donut matches its tone with that of “The Next Movement”, but still manages to sound out of place on Things Fall Apart. (Those of you who are listening to this album while reading down the list may not have any clue what I'm referring to when I talk about the overall sound of the album: rest assured, starting with the next track, you'll soon see.) “Dynamite!” sounds like Beats, Rhymes & Life-era A Tribe Called Quest (and not just because of the Jay Dee connection), which most readers will either love or hate. I choose indifference.

Thanks to a sample lifted from Schooly D's “Saturday Night”, “Without A Doubt” helps The Roots reach an old-school aesthetic that they both embrace and completely fucking destroy. Black Thought uses his verses to exercise their dominance over most rap acts, using threats of actual talent over those of violent acts (although Thought does mention that he will “send a verse in the mail like a death threat”). The final minute of the track is reserved for a quick jam session that blends seamlessly into...

That's not a typo: the artist currently known simply as Eve provides backup vocals for this track. This is actually my favorite song off of Things Fall Apart. The calm and collected beat contrasts directly with the harsh lyrics, which are chock full of goofy boasts (such as Black Thought's claim that “Chase Manhattan endorse[s] my mic checks”). Technically, this tirade against the overt sameness of hip hop at the time isn't really saying anything new either, but it is entertaining as fuck, even as it devolves into an abstract scat song toward the end. This still sounds as good today as it did way back in 1999.

According to ?uestlove's liner notes, “Double Trouble” originally contained contributions from Mos Def's Black Star partner Talib Kweli, but he was soon removed because Black Thought liked the idea of an old-school back-and-forth between two emcees (and besides, the song is called “Double Trouble”, not “Triple Threat”). While I feel bad for Kweli (this would have most certainly been a good look for him so early in his career), I can't imagine this track playing out any other way: Tariq and Dante play off of each other with a chemistry that most romantic “comedies” would fucking kill for. The xylophone also helps add to the relaxing vibe. Mos Def's homage to “Planet Rock” at the end is all sorts of unnecessary, though.

Judging by the title (and by ?uestlove's own admission), this was originally intended to be an interlude, built in the same fashion as the other two parts lying around elsewhere on the album, but The Roots somehow mysteriously turned this into an indirect sequel to guest star Common's “I Used To Love H.E.R.”. To his credit, Common's extended metaphor uses very little repetition from his original classic (and he even manages to send shots toward Puff Daddy, which I'm sure Roots fans fucking loved back in 1999). Lyrically, Tariq is also on point, and most listeners, even those who aren't “coffee shop chicks and white dudes”, will love the musical breakdown immediately following Lonnie's verse. Nice.

64. 100% DUNDEE
Human beatbox Rahzel doesn't make all of the music with his mouth, but he does supply the backbone, as Black Thought and Malik B. dance within the melody as if this were their senior prom. It was also very nice of Tariq to mention Chinua Achebe by name. Although he isn't the greatest rapper in the world and I know he has his own personal issues to deal with, Malik B.'s presence was missed on How I Got Over.

Proving that a little bit of Dice Raw can go a very long way, he kicks a pretty good verse on this short interlude (with music provided by cello player Diedre Murray). I still hate it when songs songs fade out before the artist is finished, though.

Although this track is probably best known as the debut of Philly's own Beanie Sigel (spelled “Beenie Siegal" in the liner notes), recorded either shortly before or shortly after his signing with Roc-A-Fella Records (I'm not sure which), “Adrenaline!” can easily be seen as “Clones” redux, although M.A.R.S. Is switched out for the Mac Man. The beat, co-produced by Roots member Scott Storch (I added that tag because most people forget that jackass was once a part of the greatest hip hop band of all time) provides listeners with a nice headrush, while all four participants straight-up rip shit, with Beans providing a more-than-adequate reason to continue following his career. (That goodwill didn't extend very far, but oh well.) When compared to the rest of the Roots Crew's catalog, “Adrenaline!” still holds up today, which is impressive for what is essentially a posse cut.

A beatbox skit that isn't long enough to become truly annoying, but isn't short enough to avoid hitting the 'skip' button.

I find the backstory for this Grammy-award winning single to be far more fascinating than the actual song. If you're not aware, The Roots wrote this love rap with a then-unknown Jill Scott and a then-unknown Eve Of Destruction (which is what Eve called herself while signed with Aftermath the first time around, prior to hooking up with the Ruff Ryders), both of them Philly musicians who would make waves within the music industry later in their careers. Jill Scott's vocals were replaced by Erykah Badu's, as Erykah was a well-known commodity at this point and the label felt she would help The Roots sell more copies of Things Fall Apart (this probably wasn't a bad move, given the overall result); Eve was allowed to retain her contribution on the song, but doesn't appear in the accompanying music video at all. (?uestlove apparently blames himself for this oversight.) I've always found this song too sickly sweet, more so sickly, as Thought sounds entirely out of his element, as if even The Roots knew that this song only existed to sell records. I'm glad they won the Grammy (even though that award means nothing, at least this means the band's name flashed on television screens for a split second back in 2000, as rap awards are never given out during the live broadcast), but I still wish it was for a better song. The drum-and-bass bit toward the end was a nice touch, though.

This boring-as-shit song is best remembered for its out-of-left-field and out-of-context Radiohead reference and for its selective censorship (which happens often in Roots songs, for some reason). I suppose it would be virtually impossible to keep the pace that started with “Without A Doubt” and ended with “Adrenaline!” going forever, but the fact that The Roots didn't even try on this jazzy Do You Want More?!!!??! throwback (that's not a compliment, by the way) pretty much signifies the end of the album.

Ursula Rucker provides some more spoken word poetry to cap off the evening. This could have been a lot worse, but we all know how Max feels about this sort of thing.

Here's where things get interesting. The back insert under the plastic disc holder for Things Fall Apart teases that “there is no bonus track...or is there?”, or something to that effect (my plastic case is put away in storage, so I'm going off of memory here). Well, yes, there is a bonus track: the marketing card the record label slipped into the liner notes gives that shit away, as they include one more song than what is mentioned within the liner notes themselves. However, back when people listened to albums on actual compact discs, the only way to find this song was to skip to the final track and then rewind into the negative space, which I always found both sneaky and brilliant. Since you would more than likely be listening to Things Fall Apart on iTunes, the bonus track appears shortly after “Return To Innocence Lost” ends.

Hilariously, The Roots specifically refer to this as “the hidden track” right at the beginning of the song, which is far more meta than most rappers would ever dare to be. It doesn't really fit into the album's sequence: the beat is a bit too freeform to grasp. But Black Thought regains his composure and provides listeners with a proper sendoff that probably could have also ended illadelph halflife on a high note.

The compact disc version of Things Fall Apart ends with an additional track.

Because the bonus track plays out before this track even starts, we are left with four seconds of silence before Things Fall Apart just ends. The marketing card lists the title of this track, as does iTunes when you throw this disc into your computer for uploading, but there is no reference to a fourth “Act” interlude anywhere in the liner notes. Tricky bastards, The Roots.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Things Fall Apart is easily the most accessible album in the Roots Crew's catalog; it's just a bonus that it was also their most consistent (until How I Got Over, anyway). The continuing adventures of ?uestlove and Black Thought (inarguably the heart and soul of The Roots), along with their many musical friends, has its share of missteps (Malik B. is so outclassed behind the mic that guest Dice Raw sounds like Rakim by comparison), but the marriage of music and lyrics knocks more often than not, especially during the fucking brilliant second act. The Roots deserve a wider audience, and with Things Fall Apart they got what they wanted, albeit for only a short period of time. Based on sheer entertainment value alone, Things Fall Apart is their finest hour, although I will admit that The Roots have crafted much better material since 1999.

BUY OR BURN? Buy this shit. The masterful second act alone is worth the price of admission, and besides, you two will probably enjoy “You Got Me” more than I do anyway.

BEST TRACKS: “Ain't Sayin' Nothin' New”; “Act Too...Love Of My Life”; “Double Trouble”; “Adrenaline!”; “100% Dundee”; “Without A Doubt”; “Table Of Contents (Parts 1 & 2)” (Part 1 only)


Catch up on the back catalog of The Roots by clicking here.


  1. thanks max for this review of one of my favourite albums as it contains lots of info i did'nt have before. enjoy you holdidays, by the way

  2. i tried listening to how i got over but i cant make it past that first song with blu, his flow is just so fucking terrible i cant bring myself to keep listening

  3. A.R. MarksJune 28, 2010

    I owned this album too for a while, sold that one as well. Props on putting up that cover, it's not the one I owned but it's the one I put as the art for the album on windows media.

    Malik B. lost a step here and it was notably his last album as a member of the Roots. He was a lot fucking better on Illadelph. Also I've heard a pretty tasty live version of "You Got Me" with Jill Scott singing instead of Erykah, it blows the studio version out of the fucking water.

  4. AnonymousJune 28, 2010

    thanks for the review Max, but i still think Illadelph Halflife is their best work

  5. AnonymousJune 28, 2010

    It's about time you reviewed this, I've been waiting for a few months now.

  6. djbosscrewwreckaJune 28, 2010

    Good review Max. I think this is this the album where the Roots started to steer more towards making songs. (Not saying that's a bad thing, just saying)
    Can anyone correct me on this?
    I'm not as keen on this as their other albums, I think its lacks an overall flow or defining vibe, but I'll dig it out and check that again.
    I also dislike "You got me" - in fairness it's a well executed song, but it's boring.
    Didn't know about those five different covers - your one looks good. The vinyl I got doesn't even have a cover, just a Roots label.

  7. I just got back from seeing The Roots live, and The Next Movement sounds great live. Anyways, this is one of the better albums by them, but I'm more for Illadelph and Do You Want More. Good review, can't wait for the other albums.

  8. AnonymousJune 29, 2010

    is you kidding? love of my life is way more than just fucking "nice"... i always had a feeling that max ain't had no soul in him ... show of hands: all who knew that max was really a cracker ass wigger fronting black

  9. AnonymousJune 29, 2010

    good review but wait, are you black or white max? haha

  10. yo Max, Adrenaline is not Beanie's debut guest appearance, it's Reservoir Dogs.