Roots That Matter

That sense of identification with the City of Brotherly Love comes through repeatedly on Things Fall Apart. The group reworks Philly hero Schooly D's 1987 track "Saturday Night" on the minimalist, cowbell-crazy "Without a Doubt." Even more impressive is their respect for the early '70s Philly International sound of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, whose old string players are used to enrich the street-corner soul of "Act Too (Love of My Life)."

The vintage string sound ably complements the reminiscences of Black Thought. He takes a page from Stevie Wonder's wistful "I Wish" by recalling when he "was a little snot-nosed rockin' gazelle," enraptured by the hip-hop he heard on the streets of Philadelphia. This is a love song with a difference, as Black Thought repeatedly comes back to the same conclusion: "Hip-hop, you're the love of my life."

That brand of abiding love is one of the elements that distinguishes the Roots from their peers. For many rappers hip-hop is the only game they know, not so much an artistic choice as a career imperative. But the Roots come from backgrounds in jazz, painting, and literature. Thompson honed his drumming skills by backing his father ('50s doo-wop singer Lee Andrews) at oldies shows in Atlantic City. The Roots member also has an estimated 9000 records in his collection, covering every imaginable genre of music.

For Thompson turning to hip-hop actually meant giving up a promising career as a jazz drummer. But like his bandmates, he was overcome with a near-evangelical zeal to expand the boundaries of hip-hop. When you love anything that much, you're liable to get a bit overprotective. That explains "Ain't Sayin' Nothing New," the latest installment in Black Thought's continuing rant against the obviousness of most commercial hip-hop. It's an infectious groove, if the lyrical sentiment is a bit timeworn by this point.

The Roots' greatest heights on Things Fall Apart come from more surreal, artsy moments. The album's best track, "Dynamite!", layers a smooth, Barney Kessel-ish, jazz-guitar riff over Thompson's metronomic beats (so solid you'd swear it was a drum program). Black Thought unleashes an unbroken flow of words like the bebop soloist he is at heart, and every verse is punctuated by a unison chant of "Touch this illa fifth dynamite." It's silly, joyous, and impossible to resist.

Everything about Things Fall Apart carries with it the sense that this could be the Roots' big moment. After suffering through two years as guinea pigs in Geffen's urban-music department, they've found a much more supportive environment at MCA. Their profile has increased since illadelph halflife, owing to their acclaimed work on Erykah Badu's debut album, Baduizm. (She returns the favor with a sultry vocal on the flamenco-flavored track, "You Got Me.") Early reviews for their latest release have been outrageously glowing.

The self-proclaimed perfectionists completed 145 tracks for the album, then painstakingly whittled them down to 18. Black Thought says this approach was nothing new for the group. "It wasn't really unusual," he says. "We usually overrecord. Then we boil it down to the cream of the cream." That editing process is what Thompson referred to when he confidently told XXL, "We're building the perfect beast."

Unlike many of their peers, the Roots can also take that perfect beast and enhance it onstage. Without any glitz or pyrotechnics, they deliver three hours of live-band music that quietly redefines what hip-hop can be in a concert setting. As Thompson recently told the Source: "[We're] just here to feed hip-hop the proper vitamins and minerals. And, you know, we're hip-hop's colon cleansers.

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