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The Roots’ latest is too tame

Kenyatta Storin | Thursday, September 23, 2004

High expectations surround every album release of The Roots, but the group has never managed to garner the popularity or attention that mainstream hip-hop acts possess. Led by drummer ?uestlove and rapper Blackthought, The Roots is a rare breed in hip-hop, as it focuses on live instrumentation, making it perhaps the only true hip-hop band out there. Over time the group has enjoyed occasional radio play for a few of its more conventional songs, most notably its 1999 hit “You Got Me” featuring Erykah Badu, but unfortunately its eccentric style has often left its music unknown to many hip-hop fans. Despite this, The Roots remain a well-respected group by both critics and fans of underground rap because of its excellent live performances and its constant ambition to push albums in new directions. The group’s last release, “Phrenology,” demonstrated this as it was ambitious, experimental and at times downright weird, making it both impressive and intriguing regardless of whether one liked all of it or not. The Roots attempt to push musical boundaries once again in “The Tipping Point,” but it does not wow you as much as The Roots intend. In an attempt to make “The Tipping Point” loose and free-flowing, The Roots created the album through a series of jam sessions that were later edited down for release. On paper, this was a creative idea and one quite fitting for The Roots considering its focus on live music. The result is a quality album, but it is not nearly as innovative as it could have been. In fact, aside from parts of the album’s concluding 16-minute track, “Why (What’s Goin On?),” there is little resemblance of the original jam sessions. Instead, it is strangely unadventurous. Despite this, there is plenty of good hip-hop to be heard. The Roots lack any sort of commitment to any one style or groove, giving the record a wide range of tracks. For instance, the album conjures up Sly & The Family Stone on the upbeat “Star,” sports a catchy Timbaland-esque beat on “Don’t Say Nuthin” and uses a Reggae style chorus in “Guns are Drawn.” The great deal of variety keeps the album entertaining and increases its overall longevity.Unfortunately, the album also stumbles in some areas. “I Don’t Care” and “Somebody’s Gotta Do It” are two such low points, with rather mundane beats and hooks that are rather uncharacteristic of The Roots. Cuts such as these are rather disappointing, for one expects more from The Roots, jam sessions or otherwise. With virtually no guest rappers, Blackthought takes the brunt of the lyrical work on “The Tipping Point.” Blackthought is often underrated as a rapper, and for the most part he does a good job on “The Tipping Point.” His finest moments are on “Web” where he is backed by only a simplistic, cymbal-oriented ?uestlove drum beat, allowing his lyrics to come to the forefront of the song. Here he spouts battling rhymes like “Tryna breathe like Black will collapse your lung / Young chump you can choke off the web I spun / I done cleared out from the thread I brung.”Even though Blackthought is solid, much like the rest of the album, he is not spectacular. Most of his lyrics lack focus and meander a lot as a result of the original jam sessions. While this would be fine normally in a live performance, on a recorded album it does not work because the end result is an album that lacks focus and purpose.Although “The Tipping Point” if a fine album, and still much better than the average hip-hop record, it will likely disappoint many fans of The Roots for lacking the creativity of previous efforts. One would expect The Roots to have something fresh and original from its jam sessions, but unfortunately that was not the result. The Roots will surely come up with some fresh ideas for the future, but hopefully it will execute them better, so fans can once again enjoy the imaginative music it is capable of creating.