The Roots have finally transcended beyond being underground hip-hop heroes, or the band that your friend Todd who doesn’t “really like rap” thinks “are frickin’ awesome.” Largely thanks to their fantastic nightly performances on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, they’ve become a household name in homes across the nation full of folks who know nothing about their actual recordings; but they should. The 17th anniversary (!!!) of their 4th album, Things Fall Apart, just passed, and as an underrated classic in the hip-hop canon, it’s worth talking about.
Named after the 1958 novel by Chinua Achebe, I personally find Things Fall Apart to be The Roots’ finest album, strictly speaking as a complete body of work. In a diverse discography spanning over two decades and 11 solo LPs, this sprawling 18-track epic hits the hardest, even if it’s not their most immediately gripping work. It’s become their most critically acclaimed release, and attained much commercial success too, as one of only three Roots albums to go platinum, also containing one of their biggest hits, “You Got Me” featuring Erykah Badu and fellow Philadelphian rapper Eve.
While their previous releases all improved upon themselves, with the band evolving their sound on each album, it was on Things Fall Apart where their massive potential was fully reached. The production was fuller, more lush and the most interesting that lead emcee Black Thought had spit on to date; and spit he did. This was the first album where Thought was the decidedly primary emcee, as former partner in rhyme Malik B had taken a step back to deal with personal demons. While Malik did a fantastic job on every appearance he made, this album is where Tariq Trotter became a god-tier emcee. He expanded on his subject matter, touching on social issues and relationships; but his good ole fashioned rapping ability also elevated.
On the record’s first full song, “Table of Contents, Parts 1 & 2“, Thought flawlessly spits “my voice physically fit, tracks I’m bench pressin’/ the mic cord is an extension of my intestine/ Delicate MCs sliced in my delicatessen”. More than a simple battle rhyme, the imagery and wordplay encapsulated in this quote is indicative of the fact that Black Thought had ‘leveled up’, so to speak. While every featured rapper is perfectly placed and delivers well, the only time Thought gets close to being out shined is by a then-young-and-hungry Philly spitter named Beanie Sigel on the classic “Adrenaline“; one could argue that Mos Def matches with him as a worthy teammate on “Double Trouble” as well.
The list of featured artists on Things Fall Apart alone is something to be admired, with the aforementioned Sigel, Mos Def, Eve and Erykah Badu all delivering some of the best verses and hooks of their careers; but the star-studded group of contributors doesn’t stop there. Chicago legend Common, spoken word poet Ursula Rucker, longtime Roots Crew member Dice Raw, and the best DJ in the world, Jazzy Jeff, all do their parts to make this album the classic it’s become. Rucker in particular delivers the most gripping piece she’s recorded with “Return To Innocence Lost”, a bleak, powerful description of life in the ‘hood, depicting a woman in an abusive relationship whose son grows to be swallowed by street life. It was Rucker’s third time recording a piece on a Roots LP, and hands down her best one.
While the lyrical and vocal performances are excellent, the production throughout Things Fall Apart is also phenomenal. It never gets in the way of the emcees and singers, but each instrumental BANGS, pure and simple. Former Roots keyboardist Scott Storch lends a hand to “Adrenaline” with pounding, aggressive keys, and helps take “You Got Me” to another level, infusing the latter with an epic drum n’ bass outro that surprises the listener without ruining the song’s flow. Single “The Next Movement” provides an excellent canvas for Thought to paint on, with eardrum-cracking snares and a well-timed cascading vocal sample.
On this LP, ?uestlove came into his own as one of the best drummers in the music industry, let alone just hip-hop. His snares pop like no other and his subtle versatility had never been more apparent than it is here, even mixing in some cowbell in the funkiest way possible on “Without A Doubt“. The rest of the band is also at peak form, with then-bassist Leonard “Hub” Hubbard especially shining on tracks “Dynamite!” where he provides the backbone of the whole song. The sonic landscape doesn’t get too busy but never enters ‘boring’ territory, maintaining a cohesive, dark-but-still-energetic sound that went on to define the overall sound of most of The Roots’ music from then on.
Things Fall Apart was my introduction to The Roots, first hearing it when I was in middle school. It’s what inspired me to go out and get the rest of their catalog, and although I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every release of theirs I’ve heard, none quite touched this one. As I wrote this reflection on one of my favorite hip-hop albums, I thought perhaps nostalgia was leading me to be biased, but listening to it today (as objectively as possible), this isn’t bias. Most respected critics and peers of the legendary group agree: Things Fall Apart was special, period. And it still is, 17 years later. Now go listen.