Thursday, July 15, 2004

The Roots - The Tipping Point

I normally wear my musical enthusiasms on my sleeve as anyone who's spent more than an day with me will attest. My tastes and advocacy don't always prove popular; when I used to DJ, 'the girls' would come up wanting Puffy when I would be pushing Gang Starr or requesting Tupac when I wanted some Rare Groove (see Donald Byrd or Lonnie Liston Smith - 1, 2) or the Young Disciples. I make no apologies, I'm into the musician's musician ergo my love for Prince, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder; of course when it comes to hip-hop, The Roots are the original hip-hop band (apologies to Stetsasonic). Like The Duke said of Count Basie and his band, they are "the essence d'essence".

Somehow they have had the critical acclaim, and even got the Grammy for You Got Me with Erykah Badu, Eve and Jill Scott) but seem to be stuck at the platinum mark when it comes to sales when many others far less talented and deserving seemingly mint money simply for hollering, belching and not "saying nuthin'" as the mumbled chorus to Don't Say Nuthin' parodies. Their live reputation is second to none and makes them highly sought after (e.g. backing Jay-Z in his MTV Unplugged set or such disparate artists as the Dave Mathews Band, Eminem and Joss Stone). Live instrumentation is rare in their chosen form (hip hop being very sample/hook driven). When they started out (circa Do You Want More?!!!??!), they were at risk of being pigeonholed as simply a jazz-funk hip-hop act, but they've negotiated that well and have made six albums showing a wide range and considerable musical intelligence. It also helps that they are also the hardest working group in hip hop - essentially touring for two-thirds of the year - something that will ensure that they'll always be treated as gods in London or Tokyo and make money long after others are forgotten.

?uestlove (Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson) is the heart of the band: a virtuosic drummer (in my mind he's so good that he can do anything - perhaps only Karriem Riggins has his range, what with his split personality in hip-hop and jazz drumming) and producer-extraordinaire (see D'Angelo's Voodoo, Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun, Common's Like Water For Chocolate and Electric Circus and all the other SoulQuarian productions with James Poyser). Black Thought is such a versatile MC, technically his breath control allows him to go where few can tread. Kamal, the keyboardist will throw in Ahmad Jamal stylings and lush fender-rhodes, minimalist fills that keep things moving. And Leonard Hubbard is a bassist in the Ron Carter vein (see for example his production on Jaguar's Self Love). On this outing they no longer have those members (the recently departed b-boying Scratch and long-seperated Rahzel) who "made the music with their mouth" but the vocal effects are not missed on the album (we'll see about the tour) since the focus is on the basics, the fundamentals of hip hop. This is why I am so elated with their new album, The Tipping Point.

The album's 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. After 12 years (they are the only band, other than Gangstarr, to have been on a major label for this long - a testament to both their work ethic and the disposability of their peers and lack of attention record companies pay to building careers in their genre) and lots of paid dues it is time for them to emerge everywhere as it were.

For example, here's a video clip of Stay Cool (realplayer) live on the Conan O'Brien show. Note the horn section and the ethereal feel. This is a band in the pocket. They used the same sample, Al Hirt's Harlem Hendoo, that De La Soul used on Ego trippin (Part 2) but freaked it in a lilting way (more details here). And of course Black Thought lays it down lyrically. A perfect pop song.

It's a short album (10 tracks with a couple of hidden tracks). The aim is to get down to basics with the peaks and valleys of those other short albums we all love: Marvin Gaye's What's Going On?, Michael Jackson's Thriller, Stevie Wonder's Innervisions etc.

A few highlights:

Star - almost a duet with Sly and the Family Stone's Everybody is a Star (ala Unforgettable with Nat and Natalie Cole but done right). This may well go down as the song they'll be remembered for.

Black Thought's mumbled chorus on Don't Say Nuthin' castigating said vapid rappers.

Guns are Drawn - politics with a reggae-tinged groove that wouldn't be out of place in Kingston, Jamaica. (Les Nubians El son reggae from last year is also in that vein but with no message).

Stay Cool as mentioned above.

The centerpiece in my mind are the two old school homages: Web and then Boom!. It's a one-two punch of adrenaline and raw agression. These have very pared-down instrumentation essentially just featuring drum, bass and vocals, like the rawest of early hip hop. Web is a one verse extravaganza in which Black Thought's frenetic braggadocio is akin to hyperventilation. The lyrical dexterity, the allusions, the puns, the speed of delivery, and the enunciation are phenomenal. It starts fast and keeps getting faster and more ferocious. As a Big Daddy Kane fiend, in my mind I was putting the performance in song on a par to Raw or Wrath of Kane. And then the magic happens, the music pauses for 3 seconds, a voice asks 'bring the beat back', and then "Boom!".

As I listen to Boom!, the first verse if even more rugged and boastful than Web, and for the second verse, Black Thought transforms his voice and spits out a verse from the Wrath of Kane, as done by the Big Daddy. I actually believed it was a sample until he threw in a few tweaks to the lyrics and then I realized that this madman had just done the impossible. And then to top it off, the next verse is done as a perfect clone of Kool G. Rap (complete with the lisp). A lyrical monster. Mimicry of voice, intonation and flow (see Common in Heat) has been done before, but never like this or with such intensity or lyrical dexterity. This is a Hall of Fame performance.

Din daa daa is a reworking of George Kranz's 1980 one-of-a-kind creation and is the hidden track for the dance clubs. The elements are scat, drums, and humming building to a mad climax. Again Questlove's drumming is in the pocket as he exchanges with the scatting Black Thought.

I Don't Care is a fun club jam

Braggadocio is not the only thing on this album and social commentary is prominent throughout and especially on tracks like Why? (what's Going On) which declaim the ills of life in George W. Bush's America.

Dave Chappelle and even Old Dirty Bastard(!!!) show up on the bonus The Mic. The only slack on the album is perhaps Duck Down! or at a stretch Somebody's Gotta Do It but that's only because anything following Boom wil suffer in comparison and they are fast growing on me.

Clearly Black Thought takes the center stage on the album, the band step back a little, reserving their all-out game for the tour; but he seems to be ready for the task, the lyrical gymnastics on this album have served notice, he is one of the greatest MCs alive. And this is not to mention the social commentary, I can't wait for the tour.

The only pity is that the US release doesn't contain the instrumental track, The Melting Point, which shows off their jazz-funk chops.

Run to your record store, or fire up iTunes as the case may be; The Roots have reached the tipping point.

Summary: 9 out of 10

A snippet about the process of making the album.
Some conversations about the Tipping Point
Other reviews of the The Tipping Point.

See also: The Roots + Floetry = Virtuosity (for the live review).


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