The Tipping Point

Artist: The RootsTitle: The Tipping PointRating: 3 1/2 StarsReviewed by: Jason Newman

When The Roots released their sixth album, Phrenology, in 2002, the general consensus was that while great moments were there, it left you more scratching your head than nodding it. Two years later and enter The Tipping Point, a partial about face to Phrenology and their most conventional album to date.

The title is taken from Malcolm Gladwell’s 2002 book of the same name, which argues that ideas, behaviors and products spread in a similar fashion to viruses. Once a small group picks up an idea, their behavior will extend to more and more people until a critical mass, or “Tipping Point,” is reached. (Think of the proliferation of Von Dutch shirts and trucker hats across different demographics.)

Have The Roots, with their seventh album, reached this point?

It’s a question that’s hard, if not impossible, to answer. Up until Point, each album, while not detouring, has veered sonically from its predecessor. While the skillfulness of the band members remained a constant, the group has thrived on pushing the boundaries of what hip-hop is “supposed to sound like” both within the genre and the band itself. Listen to Do You Want More?!!!??! and Phrenology back to back and tell me you’re hearing the same group. The effect has led to admiration, alienation and, especially with Phrenology, bemusement. As each record was released, one wondered if “this was gonna be the new Roots sound from now on,” only to be thrown some sort of curve on the subsequent album. With Point, this streak is over, as The Roots deliver a fairly straightforward, and mostly solid, set of tracks.

This is not to imply any sort of slacking or musical boredom on the part of the band. The Roots helped invent the idea of a hip-hop headphone listen and Point is no exception. Key instruments float in the background throughout entire songs. “Duck Down!” constantly bounces percussion from one ear to the other and back. “Star” ends with a guitar riff that could be in a Kabuki performance. You could probably count on two hands the number of hip-hop albums you hear new things on your tenth listen and for this, The Roots should be commended.

But the added elements that turned off many listeners to Phrenology – the hardcore homage of “!!!!”, the freak-out free jazz that ends “Water” (arguably the scariest hip-hop track ever made) – are gone and what is left is The Roots’ “safest” album, with tracks that range from at least good to occasionally incredible.

“Star,” the first half of opening track “Star/Pointro” deftly samples Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everybody is a Star” that-with its funk guitar riff and vocal samples reminiscent of early RZA production-immediately reminds you why you liked this band in the first place. Same goes for “Don’t Say Nuthin’” and “Stay Cool,” two standouts on the album. On “Nuthin’,” Scott Storch’s eerie keyboard sound recalls Kamal’s work on Illadelph’s “Panic!!!!”. Lending to the dark feel of the album’s first single is Black Thought’s mumbled chorus which, perhaps unexpectedly, serves as an appropriate vocal accompaniment. “Stay Cool” anchors itself around the same Al Hirt sax sample De La Soul famously used for Buhloone Mindstate’s “Ego Trippin’ (Pt. 2)”, augmented by what can best be described as snake charmer background music and a Pharrell-soundalike Spon on the hook. The Roots have the unique ability to take sounds you’ve heard countless times and make them feel fresh and unique. Perhaps not coincidentally, “Cool” is followed by a pair of tracks, “Web” and “Boom!” that embrace their respect for the veterans that pave the way, reminiscent of Phrenology’s “Thought @ Work” and “Things Fall Apart’s “Table of Contents, Pt. 1,” “Web” is a Black Thought vocal demonstration that proves why he is vocally one of the best emcees in hip-hop. “Boom!” sees Black Thought doing spot-on imitations of Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap over ?uestlove’s raw drumming.

The major complaint that Thought doesn’t really say anything is only slightly assuaged on Point. Known more for his vocal delivery and cadence (listen to how he flawlessly rhymes “man” with “playin’” on “Don’t Say Nuthin’”), Thought does get political on “Guns Are Drawn” and “Why (What’s Going On?)”. On the former, he rhymes, “You know the stakes is high, we in the face of drama/That’s why we can’t shake it or escape the problem/It’s like a game of roulette the barrel revolving/They only wanna see us occupying a coffin.” His delivery complements the music so well though that his lyrics, at this point, may be treated by many as an afterthought. At least he’s saying more than most commercially successful emcees.

The souled-out R&B influence has come up before in The Roots’ catalog, particularly on Phrenology, but nowhere is it more present than on Point. Virtually every song uses a neo-soul crooner to sing the hook, steering The Roots as much into fellow Okayplayers D’angelo & Jill Scott territory as their rap peers. While at times the choruses fit the song perfectly, as on “Stay Cool,” other hooks feel forced and pieced together with the rest of the song carelessly, particularly on “Duck Down!” With a hook that borders on sappy and a beat that goes nowhere, “I Don’t Care” is the only song that stands out as an overall dud on the album.

What will probably be the first thing people notice about Point is how quickly it ends. As hip-hop albums get longer and longer and more skits, interludes etc. are added for no discernible reason, it is a testament to a band whose last four albums have all exceeded 70 minutes to make a 10-track, under 50-minute record (not counting the bonus track which sees Dave Chappelle riding the popularity of his Lil’ Jon imitation). ?uestlove has been quoted as saying that his favorite albums are all under 35 minutes and the brevity of the album only reinforces the strength of the music. Starting off as a bunch of different Philly jam sessions, the music would eventually morph and be shaped into what you hear on the album.

In contrast to the usual diminishing stature of rap groups as they dissolve, fall out of fashion, or just plain make bad music, The Roots get more and more important to both hip-hop and contemporary music as a whole with each passing year. They have already proven time and again that they are some of the most gifted musicians working within the genre. On The Tipping Point, are they breaking down any musical barriers and creating a revolutionary new sound? Not really. But the point is: they don’t have to. They’ve set the bar so high for themselves that the mere fact that they made a “normal” hip-hop album is cause for discussion. It should not take away, however, from any laudatory comments they deserve. True, they stumble at times but overall, with The Tipping Point, The Roots continue to solidify their place as one of the foremost creative groups in music.

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