If the habitually copious liner notes of their latest CD are any indication, The Roots, hip-hop’s own stalwart attempt at creating a musical co-op a la Parliament, are trying to come to terms with their own legacy. And by legacy, I mean fan base. You can see why the collective might be a little bit cagey about how they’re being sold by their fans. Because they’re so vehemently defended by the type of listener that will almost robotically decry all other hip-hop as being less “authentic,” The Roots are in constant danger of being viewed as nothing more than an urban Dave Matthews Band, that tired and self-inflated bastion of college kids purporting to “grow out of” pop adolescence. Of course, the chief difference is that Dave Matthews’s jams (to say nothing of the songs they’re built from) are listless, lazy, and torpid, and their musical palate couldn’t be grayer. The Roots are tight, experimental, and—it can’t be said enough—playful.
The Tipping Point, which was reportedly constructed from snatches of improvisation, might not be as ambitious as their cultural ultimatum Things Fall Apart, or as zeitgeisty as Phrenology, but it might just be their most jovial effort yet. Talk about besting trends: compare Tipping Point to the Beastie Boys’ latest, To The 5 Boroughs. The Beasties lob cherry bombs into the White House’s toilets, which is welcome, even essential, but hardly transgressive. In contrast, The Roots’ most overtly political song, “Guns Are Drawn,” dares to put a price on political consciousness in a culture that routinely chooses apathy: “We go to war and transcend space and time/When every record ain’t a record just to shake behinds.” In addition, Tipping Point is a far less aggrandizing ode to old school. “Web” and “Boom!” uncannily mimic the Dust Brothers’ peppery, filtered funk loops. That their unique textures aren’t built from samples—indeed, that they use their studio wizardry and instrumental chops to mimic the essence of sampleslaya—seems to peg The Roots as an essential link in bringing the art of sampling full circle.
As if to announce their intention to school some of their fan base on the importance of well-rounded musicology, the album is bookended with unexpected near-covers. The opening, “Star,” is a stunning revisit of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everybody Is A Star” that, according to the notes, was created simply because a fan told them she dreamed that they would do a cover and it would be one of their best tracks. Once the plaintive, downbeat song proper melts into its dreamy, Headhunters-esque outro, one realizes her vision was prophetic. Finally, with the near-obligatory hidden closing track, which, as usual, can only be identified by its numerical place in the band’s catalogue (in this case: “113”), the band busts loose with a housed-up tribute to George Franz’s “Din Daa Daa” (from Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo) that should put an end, once and for all, to any notions of the band as a dour, moody unit.