2004 was apparently a transition year for Philadelphia-bred hip hop band The Roots. After the release of their fifth album, Phrenology, two years prior, the group saw their numbers dwindling a bit. In the span of two years, they lost several band members, secondary emcee Malik B. (who, sadly, chose drug addiction over making music, although he's gotten a lot better, as I understand it), and human beatbox Scratch, best known for not being Rahzel, the Roots Crew's other human beatbox, who had left to pursue solo ventures quite a while ago. (They also lost guitarist Ben Kenney to the rock band Incubus. Seriously. I like a couple of Incubus songs, but honestly, he may as well have defected for Limp Bizkit or some other band so irrelevant today that they don't even make radars capable of measuring their impact.)
Roots founders Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson (who most people just call “Questlove” now, which I can dig but I actually prefer using the punctuation) and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter weren't deterred; however, they were forced to regroup and restore a sense of normalcy for the rest of the crew who stuck around. (Those that stayed were handsomely rewarded five years later with the gift of steady work and nationwide exposure, thanks to Saturday Night Live alum Jimmy Fallon hand-picking The Roots to be his house band for his talk show Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, a gig that transferred over to a larger audience on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon earlier this year.) So, as per usual, The Roots began writing new songs by wading through jam sessions with rappers and other musicians they respected, and their sixth full-length project, The Tipping Point, was born.
The Tipping Point took its name from a Malcolm Gladwell book of the same name. (Weirdly, this isn't even the first time I've brought up Gladwell's book on the blog: frequent readers will note that Gladwell also profiled a sadly-mostly-unknown musician Kenna within its pages, and as you all know, I apparently like Kenna enough to throw reviews into the wind, since nobody ever fucking comments on them. But I'm not bitter.) In it, Gladwell posits that, among other things, “ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do”, and , perhaps not coincidentally, it was with the release of The Tipping Point that more and more hip hop heads started paying attention to Black Thought's lyrics, which combined boasts 'n bullshit with socio-political talk. This is most likely due to the fact that ?uestlove made the executive decision that The Tipping Point was going to be Black Thought's time to shine: although the rest of The Roots are obviously present on the musical side of things, they wanted to help Tariq create a more traditional hip hop album, one that could possibly carry the Roots name farther than their previous breakthrough, Things Fall Apart.
To do this, Ahmir called upon former Roots musician Scott Storch, who had previously left the crew (lots of shuffling around in the band, isn't there) to work alongside Dr. Dre and, later, produced some successful hit singles on his own, lost all of his money while coked out of his goddamn mind, and is slowly trying to bring himself back to one, but none of that shit is important right now. What is important is the fact that he was once a member of The Roots, and ?uestlove used his newly-developed skills to try and help Black Thought break onto mainstream radio.
As you and I both know, this didn't actually happen: The Roots have never lit up the Billboard charts like that. But The Tipping Point serves as proof that Ahmir and Tariq are not only aware of current hip hop trends, they are capable of running with them, although they prefer to do it their own way, as opposed to sounding like everyone else in our chosen genre. This path obviously worked out for them: in addition to the Fallon gig, The Roots found themselves signing to the then-Jay Z-led Def Jam Records, their still-current label home, and have since released collaborative efforts with the likes of John Legend, Betty Wright, and Elvis motherfucking Costello, so at least they impressed the right people.
(As per usual when I'm not writing a Gut Reaction piece on The Roots, I'm using the actually track numbering that ?uestlove lists the songs in, so the first track is actually the one hundred-and-third song in the overall Roots catalog, and so on. What I'm saying is, don't be thrown off by the numbers.)
103. STAR / POINTRO (FEAT. WADUD AHMAD)
Simple but ambitious, the introductory track on The Tipping Point rides a sample from Sly & The Family Stone's “Everybody Is A Star” through some Black Thought verses before the music takes a turn for the esoteric, which means that, toward the end of the long-ass track, it begins to sound like every other rap album intro ?uestlove and The Roots have ever put together. It is a little strange to hear Tariq talk about how hip hop isn't a part of pop music on an album that also features “Don't Say Nuthin'”, The Roots Crew's most obvious bid for mainstream acceptance (albeit in satirical form) aside from Things Fall Apart's Erykah Badu-featured “You Got Me”, but his bars still sounded pretty awesome. The actual song runs for much longer than absolutely necessary, of course.
104. I DON'T CARE (FEAT. DOM)
Keeping with the feel-good vibe, “I Don't Care” simmers with its simplistic drumbeat and Tariq's verses, all of which are as commanding as you would expect from the guy. There is some impressive shit going on with the instrumental, working in vocalist Dom's humming and shouting as its own instrument, which takes just enough of the saccharine off of his cheesy chorus to make this enjoyable. Probably could have benefited from the inclusion of a guest rapper or something, though. An elephant, maybe? A leprechaun? Oooh, perhaps an inanimate water heater? Why is it up to me to come up with all of the creative ideas?
105. DON'T SAY NUTHIN'
A most blatant attempt at snatching at least a tiny bit of commercial success, “Don't Say Nuthin'” utilizes a Scott Storch instrumental as a vehicle for one of the silliest Roots songs of recent memory. Although Storch was previously a part of the Roots Crew before finding solo success, this track marks the first time he supplied a beat on his own to the crew. The reason I classify this as “silly” is because of Black Thought's hook, which is made up of a bunch of nonsense words (alongside a clever and concise “Cut the check!”) in an attempt to display how other rappers don't really have that much in the way of content. Tariq's verses are hard as fuck, though, and he fits Storch's beat better than, say, Fat Joe ever could. Actually sounds even better today than it did in 2004: I don't think it was appreciated all that much upon its original release. Go make up for lost time, you two.
106. GUNS ARE DRAWN (FEAT. AARON LIVINGSTON)
Doesn't really work today, mainly because it kind of wanders around without any real direction. Tariq's verses seem angry enough (although not quite as incendiary as I remembered), but the beat, coupled with Aaron Livingston's hook, is the audio equivalent of walking onto an escalator with purpose and immediately finding yourself stuck behind someone who refuses to believe that the intent of the escalator is to get you upstairs or downstairs faster than using regular steps but is, instead, supposed to be a rest area where you can stop fucking moving, regardless of how much of a hurry the people behind you are in. No, I double-checked that statement: that analogy makes perfect sense.
107. STAY COOL (FEAT. MARTIN LUTHER)
An interlude placed at the end of “Guns Are Drawn” leads into “Stay Cool”, which can easily be seen as a natural response one might shout when a gun is drawn on them, immediately following a yelp and/or shitting in your pants. The two songs aren't really connected, though, unless you use the qualifier “but they're both Roots songs, you dumb motherfucker”. The musical backing evokes a jazzy, it-should-be-smoky-in-here-but-my-city-passed-that-no-smoking-ordinance feel, and Black Thought follows suit, but the track as a whole is ultimately lacking. It's probably best that we just skip ahead...now.
The simple beat is merely a delivery system for the lyrics, performed by Black Thought as a breathless tour de force that sounds pretty fucking amazing. Tariq's bars kick off as though he were mid-thought, giving the (false, but still cool-sounding) impression that all Black Thought does all day is spit rhymes, and “Web” is just a three-minute snatch of conversation the Roots Crew recorded just before Tariq walked away to get a kolache. “Web” belongs in the “Black Thought is still underrated why?” pantheon alongside the likes of “Thought @ Work” and, if we're looking to the future, Rising Down's “75 Bars (Black's Reconstruction)”. This shit was nice.
109. BOOM! (FEAT. “DICE RAW”)
I placed the two Juice Crew member names in between quotation marks because “Boom!” features, in a bizarre feat of homage and possibly a display of an actual sense of humor (this was pre-Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, mind you, so nobody really knew these guys could be funny yet), impressions of both artists performed by Black Thought, who comes pretty close to capturing their sound, if not their essence. But the overall idea of Black Thought recording a collaboration with Big Daddy Kane and Kool G. Rap is so rich that it just has to actually happen. I put Dice Raw's name in between quotation marks just because I'm a dick: Dice really does pop up during the hook, which is the weakest link (but not overwhelmingly so) on a track where the lead steps out of his comfort zone rhyme-wise. The instrumental is upbeat and will get the blood flowing, too, which was a plus.
110. SOMEBODY'S GOTTA DO IT (FEAT. DEVIN THE DUDE, JEAN GRAE, & MACK DUB)
A surprisingly dull effort, given the sheer randomness of the guest list. Perpetual stoner Devin The Dude, who must be upset that Wiz Khalifa has usurped his status as hip hop's crossover pothead, lends a typically lackadaisical hook, while Black Thought, underground rhyming hero Jean Grae, and Mack Dub all contribute a verse, none of which have anything to do with one another. The beat is far too low-key to properly contain this track: hell, Devin sounds like he's halfway to dreamland when he starts the hook. If this was dull back in 2004, you can imagine it's almost unbearable now, mainly because of the squandered promise it once contained.
111. DUCK DOWN! (FEAT. DOM)
Over an unorthodox beat rendered as such because of ?uestlove's choice of instruments, Black Thought engages in yet another discourse on how great of a rapper he is. Which he is, so I have no problem with this: it's just the song title (and the shouting of said song title during the hook) implies that “Duck Down!” was intended as more of an attack than what we ended up actually getting. Still sounds pretty good, though, and Scott Storch's work behind the boards is not only catchy as fuck, it'll make you believe that you, too, could produce a hip hop song using only what's piled up in your kitchen sink at the moment.
112. WHY (WHAT'S GOIN ON?)
Meh. Is this really how the fucking album ends?
No. No it is not. The following bonus songs share the same audio track immediately following“Why (What's Goin On?)”.
THE MIC (FEAT. SKILLZ, TRICK NORTH, & DAVE CHAPPELLE)
At around the four minute and thirty-second mark, The Tipping Point tips into overtime, with this infections posse cut featuring Black Thought ripping shit alongside Skillz, Truck North, and, hilariously, comedian Dave Chappelle, who contributes the intro (which smacks of a similar Jay-Z intro on one of the versions of Missy Eliott's “One Minute Man”), outro, and some silly-ass ad-libs. The beat is perfect for this type of track, one where the lyrics flow like water and each artist is trying to outdo the last. It's a little bit too lighthearted to have fit into the regularly scheduled program, but it's enjoyable as fuck regardless, and we even get a quick Chappelle impression of Samuel L. Jackson from A Time To Kill, which, yes, everyone's already heard thanks to his classic, long-defunct Comedy Central series, but is still funny. The Interweb also appears to believe that the late Ol' Dirty Bastard performs backing vocals on here, which isn't impossible, but since “The Mic” is really just a “hidden” track, I don't have much in the way of confirmation, either.
DIN DAA DAA
Starts immediately after “The Mic” and lasts for pretty much the rest of the album's length. It is an actual song, albeit one with no real rapping to speak of: instead, The Roots pay their respects to George Kranz's song of the same name, converting it into a jam session that both sounds fun and tries your patience all at once. You don't miss all that much by shutting the album off after “The Mic”, to be honest.
FINAL THOUGHTS: The Tipping Point holds up surprisingly well ten years later, mostly because of the energy displayed by Black Thought, who dives into each song with the tenacity and hunger of a competitive eater with no self-control and also the fridge is broken so all of this food needs to go now, please. The musical backing, led by ?uestlove and Scott Storch, among many other contributors, sets the tone, but Tariq is the guy who brings the tracks to life this time around. More so than ever, The Tipping Point is Black Thought's star turn, and if you walk away from listening to this album and still don't believe him to be one of the best rappers in the game, you're just not a hip hop fan. Period. You don't have to like The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon or anything, but you have to respect The Roots and their contribution to our chosen genre. Real talk. Stop bullshitting and get your fucking wallet out.
BUY OR BURN? You should pick this shit up as soon as you can. If you ever wanted to know what a Black Thought solo album could potentially sound like, this might be the closest you get for a while.
BEST TRACKS: “The Mic”; “Web”; “Don't Say Nuthin'”; “I Don't Care”; “Duck Down!”; “Boom!”
There's more Roots stuff to be found here.