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The Roots – The Tipping Point

The Roots
The Tipping Point

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

There have alsobeen times when the Roots asked a lot of us. They’ve often sailed theuncharted seas of prog rap, meandering into spoken word, wanky solos,and fusion indulgences. But if their early Native Tongues-tingedoutings–1995’s Do You Want More?!!!??! and1996’s Illadelph Halflife–were happy to chill on the couch, 1999’s Things Fall Apartfound 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 witheverything from drum’n’bass to sound collages to lo-fi recordingtechniques. Things got even better with 2002’s Phrenology,which mixed R&B, soulful rock, and free jazz with a newfoundfondness for sampling–even scoring a crossover hit, “The Seed (2.0),”with Cody Chesnutt.

Rumors circulated throughout 2003 that the band would returnwith an even more expansive work (allegedly featuring cameos from Nasand John Mayer). But The Tipping Point is a different kind ofchange-up: a straight-ahead rap album with tracks culled from a varietyof mostly unknown producers that eschews live instrumentation as wellas 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 asjust one more instrument in the mix. But with Black Thought carryingthe 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 Pointis a Black Thought showcase: “I’m not only a passenger / I’m in thecockpit.” Ladies and gentlemen, your pilot has turned off the FASTENSEATBELT sign, and you may want to roam about the cabin, becauseThought is about to ramble a bit. Its title may imply a theoreticaljump-off, but The Tipping Point lacks the thematic coherence oftheir 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 dourmaturity, and he dispenses tepid social commentary (“We in the lastinning / The world keeps spinning / My people steady losing / While therich keep winning”). Tracks like “I Don’t Care” and the single “Don’tSay Nuthin'” (produced by Dr. Dre protégé and former Roots sidemanScott Storch) are supposed to be radio friendly but sound like TalibKweli outtakes.

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

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

Grade: B