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Two Steps Back

 

The Roots: The Tipping Point

Geffen, 2004

Rating: 3.7

 

 

Posted: July 14, 2004

By Laurence Station

The subtitle of Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, could well stand as the motto for the Roots. The Philadelphia hip-hop outfit has never experienced a great deal of commercial success, but it enjoys a devoted fan base and the unquestioned respect of industry heavyweights, from Jay-Z to Missy Elliot. Moreover, Gladwell's thesis in part proposes that small ripples in society can lead to profound tidal waves of change on a global scale; The Roots, handily, have spent 12 years and six albums attempting to make an impact in the ruthlessly competitive, bottom-line-driven music industry.

That is, until now. The Roots' new album The Tipping Point sounds like the work of a band reeling from a lack of support from its label, and more than a little pissed off at the current political climate in America. But it also sounds like they've been worn down a bit by their struggles. The group's two previous records, Things Fall Apart and Phrenology, were bold, sprawling efforts, bursting with ideas and an eclectic array of guest artists. The Tipping Point is comparatively compact (clocking in at under an hour) and far more minimal in both its beats and lyrical content. Key members Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson (ace drummer and heart and soul of the group) and assured lyricist Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter haven't exactly thrown in the towel when it comes to battling Geffen for a little more respect and marketing muscle, but they do sound less inspired this time around.

Rather than build on the innovative samples and improvisational elements that have defined the band's progressive identity, the Roots instead tip their caps to familiar groups and artists from yesteryear. The opening "Star" borrows from Sly and The Family Stone's "Everybody Is A Star," running out of gas halfway through it's overlong six-minute running time. This backwards-leaning gambit does pay some dividends, however: The consecutive double shot of "Web" and "Boom!" pay respect to the rapid-fire braggadocio of Big Daddy Kane ("I spit live rounds that would penetrate a vest"), while an extended ?uestlove solo tacked onto the end of closing track "Why (What's Goin' On?)" cleverly references Booker T & The MG's "Melting Pot." While there's nothing wrong with the Roots integrating samples by these classic artists into their sound, it's not exactly the most daring of moves.

Compounding this play-it-safe sonic approach, a general sense of apathy rears its head in the lyrics, as on the party track track "I Don't Care" ("I couldn't care less what you feel / What you say cause I gotta put it to you / In my own special way"). And Black Thought's frustration with Geffen rises to the fore on the cynical "Don't Say Nuthin,'" which forsakes lyrical vision in favor of a paycheck ("You see the masterpiece but to me it's unperfected / Give it here Geffen Records, I'm off the handle / Cut the check, yo, it better be as heavy as anvils").

What's really surprising, though, is how lazy the Roots get when it comes to their usually spot-on political screeds. The reggae-influenced "Guns Are Drawn" hyperbolically asks "What you gon' do when the police state begin?," while the poorly aimed "Duck Down!" dully notes "Civil liberties is free but just for some." The Roots do hang out a laundry list of ills on "Why (What's Goin' On?)," but do so in a less than stirring manner. Lifting Marvin Gaye's famous song title, but none of the song's fire, "Why" tackles the war in Iraq (redundant after "Guns Are Drawn" beat the same issue into the ground), materialism over spiritualism ("pray to Coca-Cola instead of gods"), drug addiction and crowded prisons -- all against an ineffectually repetitive "Why?" hook.

Ultimately, The Tipping Point is an ironic title, given the fact that the Roots sound like a group recharging its batteries rather than triggering a momentous shift in how it approaches its music and the world at large. Toward the end of "Why?" Black Thought admits "Somehow I gotta decide how much I want it." We'll give him and the band the benefit of the doubt that the desire is still there to soldier on, no matter how bleak or inflexible things seem. The Roots of old never had a problem believing that if you make great music, it will be heard and appreciated, corporate bean counters be damned.

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