Ovid got it wrong about Icarus. When the Roman poet immortalized the boy who flew too high, he meant to offer a cautionary tale against hubris. Generations have since assumed that Icarus fucked up by reaching too far, yet his fall became legend. No one paints frescoes about the flight of Daedalus, but his prodigal son drapes thousands of dorm rooms thanks to Matisse’s Icarus. The real moral of the Icarus tale: Getting by is boring, but there is glory to be found in ambitious failure.
The Roots’ last album, 2002’s Phrenology, enjoyed neither the critical nor the commercial success of 1999’s Things Fall Apart, but at least it laid the group’s ambitions bare. They had already certified their jazz chops with Organix (1993) and Do You Want More? (1995). Illadelph Halflife (1996) and Things Fall Apart established their lyrical superiority. With Phrenology, the group stopped obsessing over their legitimacy and instead leaped into the creative unknown. The confessional “Water” confronted a member’s crack addiction. Their pairing with guitarist Cody ChestnuTT produced the rollicking “Seed (2.0),” a rock/rap hybrid that anticipated the craze that OutKast’s “Hey Ya” rode. Even when the album wobbled, Phrenology suggested that the Roots were daring enough to try and fail—their boldness was the LP’s strongest statement. With The Tipping Point, the group scampers in retreat toward functional street anthems and radio hits, their inventive spirit notably absent. For a group who can be so compelling when they aim high and fall short, an effort so squarely average is all the more disappointing.
The Tipping Point begins auspiciously with the sublime “Star,” opening with the analog crackle of Sly Stone’s “Everybody Is a Star,” then quickly stripping the sample into ribbons of ghostly voices and curling basslines. After Black Thought closes out his verses, the song licks a tab and morphs into a hazy interlude of philosophical waxings and hypnotic swirls. At this moment, anything and everything seem possible. But instead of stepping up, the Roots backslide with “I Don’t Care,” an aptly named song whose limp production and obligatory r&b jingle beg for your indifference.
The transition between “Star” and “I Don’t Care” is jarring, like accidentally switching discs on your CD changer. The Tipping Point spills over with this kind of incongruity, as if the Roots took two or three different albums in development and haphazardly stitched them together. Is this a Black Thought solo album? The group’s lyrical leader explodes with spectacular vernacular on “Web” and “Boom,” impersonating Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap to eerie perfection on the latter. Or is this ?uestlove’s musical masterpiece? The drummer leads the band through two excellent covers, one of Boris Gardiner’s funkae reggae classic “Melting Pot,” while the “Outro” remakes George Kranz’s Euro-disco smash “Din Daa Daa” into a drum scat demonstration. Or are the Roots trying to dish out radio hits? That might explain derivative piffle like the C-grade Timba-loops on “Duck Down” or “Why (What’s Going On?),” a clone apparently spliced from Santana’s Supernatural. For the first time in their long career, the Roots turn out less a cohesive album and more a collection of tracks in which nothing much makes sense: not the sequencing, not the concept, and definitely not the song selection.
Considering how often former tour-mates the Roots and OutKast are compared, The Tipping Point emerges as everything Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was not. In contrast to Andre and Big Boi’s two-CD orgy of creative indulgence, The Tipping Point is by far the Roots’ shortest and safest album. Where once they followed the iconoclast’s path that’s guided their career over the past 11 years, the Roots opt for a bare, bland approach that’s not so much “bad” as just ordinary. Ordinary is OK—it can sell records, get you video spins, even land you on magazine covers. But why should a group capable of so much more settle for so much less?
The Roots play the PNC Bank Arts Center July 24 and Jones Beach Theater July 25.