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The Roots's Things Fall Apart

Fuck the Source--and their four mics too. I don't care what anyone else tells you, the Roots' fourth album, Things Fall Apart, is one of the greatest in the history of hip-hop. It is at once a short overview of African-American music and the formation of a new musical vision. Ultimately, it is the realization of the Roots' understanding of the contemporary state of the world through music.

The Roots have been maligned from within the hip-hop community for the band's perceived failure to "keep it real," a criticism stemming from its reliance on traditional instrumentation and earlier "organic hip-hop jazz" sound. But Things leaves no question whatsoever that the Roots are a hip-hop band, if not the hip-hop band.

The sound starts with bandleader Ahmir (aka ?uestlove), whose repertoire includes just about every classic hip-hop beat, from "Planet Rock" to "Scenario." Most evident on Things is Ahmir's fluid ability to invent diverse rhythms--everything from the old-school Eric B.-sounding cowbell-driven polyrhythms on "Without a Doubt" to a drum 'n' bass tear on "You Got Me." Keyboardist Kamal contributes a more complex, forceful structure by building chords, then adding beautiful lines that serve as loops.

Then there's the other half of the group. Tariq (a.k.a. Black Thought), a true poet, orchestrates the group of rappers surrounding the Roots. Often cited as a talented rhymer, but rarely included in the upper echelon of MCs, Tariq shows on Things just how assertive he can be. He settles into the relaxed flow of "Dynamite" and then proves he can also throw it down fast and hard on "100% Dundee."

All the other pieces are here, particularly the group's two "musicians of the mouth"--human beatbox Rhazel, who drives "100% Dundee" with a fast-paced bassline, and new addition Scratch, who vocally emulates DJ-cutting with unmatched precision on "...Electric Boogaloo."

The group displays an encyclopedic knowledge of the African-American musical tradition. It is no surprise, then, that the Roots' hip-hop aesthetic on Things is supplemented by diverse musical sources--appearances include Zap Mama's Marie Daulne, hip-hop goddess Erykah Badu, and many others.

Of course, the tracks themselves are the highlight. The first track, "Act Won (Things Fall Apart)," uses dialogue sam-ples from Spike Lee's "Mo' Better Blues" to introduce the group's intention to dissect African-American culture, and track 10, "Act Too (Love of My Life)," asserts and explains the central role of hip-hop in that culture. The final track, "The Return to Innocent Lost," is a poetic tour de force by spoken word/hip-hop artist Ursula Rucker with haunting musical accompaniment. This last statement brings the album's themes together: the great narrative of hip-hop, the narrative of the culture, and the narrative of these times.

Thematically, Things belongs alongside the great "concept" albums of recent history, like John Coltrane's A Love Supreme and Joni Mitchell's Blue. I can't remember the last time I heard anything as complete as Things--or anything as important. In the end, things come together. (MCA)

--Ben Landy

In the end, things come together.(MCA)

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