By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
Used to be, a hiphop love song was something like Rakim's "Mahogany" or Shallah Raekwon's "Ice Cream" tunes celebrating shorties from around the way; hardrocks need love too. These days, hiphop love songs are more like Common's "I Used To Love H.E.R." and "Act Too (the Love of My Life)," from the Roots' latest, Things Fall Apart tunes professing love for the culture of hiphop itself. Common and the Roots have a love jones going on for hiphop; so do Lauryn Hill (see "Superstar") and Black Star ("Children's Story"). Where you stand on the purist debate is becoming increasingly important in these Last Days. Either you're part of the problem (Puff Daddy, Foxy Brown) or part of the solution (OutKast, Erykah Badu) this argument swirls around any meaningful discussion of the Roots, but no one has yet broached the issue of whether or not this is all being taken too seriously. Well, I'll bee dat!
Early last month, anyone who caught I'll Make Me a World the PBS overview of black folks' 20th-century fine arts contributions got the sinking suspicion that hiphop might merely be a tasty crumb on the sour cream apple walnut pie that is black culture. You can't be mad at the Roots and guest-MC Common for "Act Too" black men declaring love for their world is a sacrosanct act of self-affirmation, and it's a spirited highlight of Things Fall Apart. But with a historical perspective on the evolution of slave work songs, gospel, blues, jazz, race music, rock'n'roll, funk, disco, hiphop and jungle, it's obvious that 20-year-old hiphop might flip into something else entirely in a quick second. I wouldn't get too hung up on labels; the only constant here, besides change, is the connecting thread of creative black thought.
Speaking of Black Thought, my nigga kris ex told me recently that he thinks the brotha is indisputably the most slept-on MC currently rocking the mic, and barring the ever-underground Pharoahe Monch of Organized Konfusion, I'm inclined to agree. Ex reasons that the critical masses spend so much space on the Roots' band achievements that Tariq's rhymes get overlooked, and he's right again. Clever lines like "You theatrical as a Broadway play/This ain't Rent" and "I chop rappers up like chicken Szechwan" prove the point. Roots MCs Dice Raw and Malik B lyrically go for theirs as well, their on-point verbology fortifying the Philly crew's improvisational looseness.
Beginning with a jazz purist debate between Denzel and Wesley (clipped from Mo' Better Blues) and concluding with poet Ursula Rucker's latest contribution to Roots lore, Things Fall Apart is the everything-comes-together Roots record we've been waiting for. Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, the band's drummer and primary conceptualist, envisioned the album in quadraphonic, laboring over EQs like Michael Jackson's engineer Bruce Swedien for Q-sound acoustics out of Madonna's "Justify My Love." In attempting three- dimensional sound, ?uestlove has turned out the most well-produced Roots album to date for my money, a blunt and some headphones work wonders. Ahmir suspended mics into his boy D'Angelo's dissembled Rhodes organ for toy-box lullaby effects on the poignant closer "Return to Innocence Lost," and this Beatles-on-acid experimentation helps put the septet over the top.
The Roots love hiphop and surround themselves with those who love it just as much. Ad-libbing at the end of "Double Trouble," itself a nod to Wild Style stoop MCs Rodney-O and Joe Cooly of Double Trouble, Mos Def invokes Run-D.M.C.'s "Here We Go" ("Here we go, here we here we here we go"), "Rock Box" ("Let the poppers pop and the breakers break"), and "Sucker M.C.s (Krush-Groove 1)" ("Two years ago, a friend of mine"), throwing in Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks" ("And these are the . . . ") as the track fades. This nostalgia comes off no less sentimental than memories of puppy love or teenage tongue kissing. Reminiscing over adolescent Cazal goggles and Izod clothes in the very next track, Black Thought repeats "hiphop, you the love of my life" with a sincerity that thousands of worldwide flygirls wish they could hear from their niggas.
Like the Prince bootlegs that Ahmir loves so much, diehard Roots fanatics are gonna fiend for the unreleased original version of "You Got Me" (Things Fall Apart's qualitative centerpiece) with the Jill Scott hook: "If you are worried 'bout where/I been or who I saw or/What club I been to with my homies/Baby don't worry/You know that you got me." No disrespect to my homegirl Erykah, whose participation alone could garner the group its first respectable hit single, but Off-Broadway Rent actress Scott (who wrote the hook this ain't Rent?) was sangin' that shit. Just the same, once the transcendent trip-hop stutter-snare meter sets into the song's ending, such niceties fade from memory; you're too busy picking your jaw up off the floor.
Tariq remarks, "She's in my world like hiphop," during this hiphop love song (in the original sense), and his equating culture love with romantic love brings us back where we started. Hiphop, through the grievous loss of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace, has only recently learned the life lesson about attracting what you claim to be asking for. The next lesson to be mastered is about balance: hiphop's griots are increasingly divided between sending life- affirming, positivist messages (Goodie Mob) and shake yo ass missives (Bad Boy). But we need both you know you like to shake yo ass. Some people are addicted to struggle (i.e., purism versus commercialism), and having something to die for is admirable, but how 'bout stepping off the platform and just being that progressive next level of black thought? If you strike some of its self-righteousness, Things Fall Apart is the sound of that next level.