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The Roots, ‘The Tipping Point’ (Geffen)

We ask a lot of the Roots. Straddling mainstream gun claps, underground knapsacks, and jam-band woodsheds, they’re equally at home backing Eminem at the Grammys, sharing the mic with Common, or finding the pocket with Medeski, Martin & Wood.Hip-hop’s de facto house band have never been just a rap group. Philly’s finest are the bridge between indie artists looking for shine and fat cats looking for cred. And by sharing stages with everyone from Moby to 311, they’ve normalized hip-hop for white alt-audiences.

There have also been times when the Roots asked a lot of us.They’ve often sailed the uncharted seas of prog rap,meandering into spoken word, wanky solos, and fusion indulgences.But if their early Native Tongues–tinged outings–1995’s Do You Want More?!!!??!and1996’s Illadelph Halflife–were happy to chill on the couch, 1999’s Things Fall Apart found a studio sound that delivered on the group’s adventurous promise.Spearheaded by drummer and musical director Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, they began taking production as seriously as chops, flirting with everything from drum’n’bass to sound collages to lo-fi recording techniques. Things got even better with 2002’sPhrenology, which mixed R&B, soulful rock, and free jazz with a newfound fondness for sampling–even scoring a crossover hit, “The Seed (2.0),” with Cody Chesnutt.

Rumors circulated throughout 2003 that the band would return with an even more expansive work (allegedly featuring cameos from Nas and John Mayer). But The Tipping Point is a different kind of change-up: a straight-ahead rap album with tracks culled from a variety of mostly unknown producers that eschews live instrumentation as well as the group’s burgeoning Bomb Squad streak. The elephant in the Roots’ studio has always been their rapping, with Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter serving as something of a nothing-ventured, nothing-gained MC. This approach usually worked for the group, with the vocals acting as just one more instrument in the mix. But with Black Thought carrying the weight, the record buckles.

After album opener “Star,” a languid, eight-minute vamp built on a Sly Stone sample (pretty much the sole nod to their live-band aesthetic), the group play the wall. The rest of The Tipping Point is a Black Thought showcase: “I’m not only a passenger / I’m in the cockpit.” Ladies and gentlemen, your pilot has turned off the FASTEN SEATBELT sign, and you may want to roam about the cabin, because Thought is about to ramble a bit. Its title may imply a theoretical jump-off, butThe Tipping Point lacks the thematic coherence of their recent albums. “Code name: Yaphet Kotto, Ak,” raps Black Thought. But he lacks the stoic charisma of that Bond villain/Homicide star. The boasts are drenched with a dour maturity, and he dispenses tepid social commentary (“We in the last inning / The world keeps spinning / My people steady losing / While the rich keep winning”). Tracks like “I Don’t Care” and the single “Don’t Say Nuthin'” (produced by Dr. Dre protégé and former Roots sideman Scott Storch) are supposed to be radio friendly but sound like Talib Kweli outtakes.

The pace picks up on “Web” and “Boom,” as Thought finds the controls and buzzes the tower, “eating MCs like a carnivore,” interpolating rhymes from Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap, and bruising a furious drum assault that’s either Thompson’s handiwork or a dusty breakbeat. It’s exactly the kind of abstract-retro punch the Roots throw best.Thought is equally at home on “Somebody’s Got to Do It,” playing off the warbling vocals of Houston stoner Devin the Dude and the sharp, nasal intelligence of Jean Grae.

This last track is a testament to the group’s golden A&R touch, showing that the Roots are at their best incorporating new voices rather than circling the wagons. Dripping with elbow grease,The Tipping Point goes about its unassuming business not unlike a latter-day De La Soul record. Which would be fine if we weren’t so hungry for the Roots to blow our doors off. Do you want more? Don’t we all?