The Roots "Things Fall Apart" In Review: 15-Year Anniversary

posted February 23, 2014 02:30:00 PM CST | 16 comments

The Roots "Things Fall Apart" In Review: 15-Year Anniversary

Fifteen years later, HipHopDX looks back at one of The Roots' most critically acclaimed albums.

While Eminem’s major label debut, The Slim Shady LP, may be an album for many to remember, Philadelphia Hip Hop crew The Roots also released their fourth album on the same day (February 23) fifteen years ago. Things Fall Apart features production from J Dilla—also known as Jay Dee—and a collective of artists credited as The Grand Wizzards that includes band members Questlove and Black Thought among others. The release is widely considered an important step in the band’s rise to prominence and remains their best selling work to date besides their first album to sell more than a million units.

The album features artists Erykah Badu and Common—whose Mama’s Gun and Water Like Chocolate albums were recorded in the same studio during the same period of time as Things Fall Apart—as well as Mos Def, Lady B, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Eve, Beanie Sigel, and frequent collaborator Dice Raw. In April of last year, just days after the group offered fans a picture cover vinyl reissue for Record Store Day, HipHopDX reported that the album was certified platinum by the RIAA more than fourteen years removed from its initial release. The Roots’ latest nightly gig as the house band on The Tonight Show—a carry-over from their performing the same duties with Jimmy Fallon on his previous late-night series—has put the band on a new stage and platform. That fact, which hasn’t interrupted a consistent release schedule of albums—last year they released a full-length with Elvis Costello but sans Black Thought on the mic—is no doubt somewhat attributable to the hits, like “You Got Me,” that helped garner attention and acclaim for the group fifteen years ago.  

The Roots’ Things Fall Apart Review Revisited

With their expanded name recognition, The Roots received the best possible rating from USA Today writers for Things Fall Apart. “Few groups in hip-hop have the Roots' propensity for growth—and surprise,” the paper wrote. “With their jazzy, live instrumentation and dense, insightful lyrics, they've always managed to make creativity a priority over commercialism. On their fourth album...the Philadelphia band takes a few jabs at the state of the art (“Table of Contents,” “Nothing New”) while they're elevating the form.” Separately, Rock critic Robert Christgau referenced the newfound samples on the 1999 release. “They even sample now and then—I’ve never been so happy to run into Schoolly D in my life,” he wrote. “What’s so consistently annoying on their earlier intelligent records is almost hooky on this one, integral to a flow that certainly does just that, which isn’t to say you won’t be relieved when it rocks the house instead. Gee—maybe they’ve gotten more intelligent.”

The Roots' Things Fall Apart Singles & Awards

If The Roots have a signature song for the masses, their Things Fall Apart collaboration with Erykah Badu may well be it. Though originally co-written and performed by Philadelphia singer Jill Scott, the then largely unknown songstress was traded out for Erykah Badu on the final album. “You Got Me,” which appears as the fifteenth track on the album, served as the project's lead single and received an accompanying set of visuals. That song also served as the group’s first Grammy nomination and would end up winning within the category of Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group the same year. The album’s only other single, “Adrenaline,” was released prior to the album and did not chart as well as the Badu featuring lead.

The Roots Since Things Fall Apart

Since Things Fall Apart, The Roots have both literally and figuratively come to occupy a space never before filled by Hip Hop artists. Following their pre-millennium success, which included their debut album Organix, Do You Want More?!!!??!, and Illadelph Halflife, the group has released as many as nine studio albums, sometimes partnering up with artists outside of Hip Hop to consistently genre-bending effect. In 2002, following the release of a live album, The Roots released Phrenology. Shortly after the album’s release, HipHopDX reviewed Phrenology in early 2003. “If The Roots, or at the very least the sound they represent are the future of Hip Hop,” HipHopDX’s review reads, “then the sky is the limit.” That album, which featured a hidden bonus track at the end of the tracklist, included now cuts like “Break You Off” which features fellow Philadelphian Musiq Soulchild. The group followed up Phrenology with The Tipping Point in 2004. That album, which, like Things Fall Apart, coopted its name from a piece of literature (in this case the title of Malcolm Gladwell’s popular 2000 book) and featured Malcolm X—and Black Thought in an alternate version—on the cover art. The Tipping Point also received a perfect rating from HipHopDX, which called it “flawless.” “It just doesn't get much better than this…” HipHopDX said at the time

After a short hiatus, The Roots crew returned in 2006 with Game Theory and have maintained an enviable schedule since. While that release found DX shaving a star from the group’s previous rating, the album mixed Thought’s lyrics with a noticeable switch up in production. “Yes it's a relatively safe and straightforward album musically, no doubt about it,” HipHopDX’s review says. “But Thought makes the most lyrically compelling album to date and the production is still nothing short of great. I still want more.” Following Rising Down two years later, the group, seemingly reinvigorated, released two albums a year in both 2010 and 2011, in each case offering up a ‘solo’ Roots record before the release of a collaborative album with John Legend and Betty Wright respectively. In 2011, HipHopDX Media Editor Kathy Iandoli reviewed undun, which earned perfect rating from HipHopDX. “undun is not an album for the faint of heart, nor is it an album for the one-dimensional Hip Hop aficionado,” she wrote. “Like The Roots accomplished with Phrenology, this is a work to prove that they could do it, and they’ve done it tenfold. Many assumed mainstream success and a house band gig with Jimmy Fallon would evolve into an inevitable stasis for new Roots music. They couldn’t be more wrong.”

Most recently, the group’s Elvis Costello featuring 2013 release received four out of five stars on HipHopDX. “While they largely reside in separate spaces, Questlove and Costello are perfect counterparts in their musical zaniness,” DX’s review says. “Still, instead of an album that requires a sit down they’ve struck the careful balance of both immediately gratifying and study worthy.”

Outside of the genre, and beginning earlier this week, one of Hip Hop’s most well-known live bands began its tenure as the house band of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, a spot that will continue to broadcast their music. Meanwhile, Questlove continues to teach at the New York University. With the success of the band, it’s albums like Things Fall Apart that helped form the foundation the group continues to build upon.

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