Review #416: Things Fall Apart, The Roots

Karla Clifton
3 min readJul 13, 2023

#416: Things Fall Apart, The Roots

I started this album right as I was finishing Questlove’s Music Is History. The Roots are pretty literary, apparently, this album being named after Chinua Achebe’s debut, which is famous for being a bit of a challenge.

Lots of interesting revelations in Questlove’s book, the biggest one to me being the fact that he considered Kurt Cobain’s death “professionally consequential.” (238) He explains that the situation was an emergency for the group, now anxious that they were going to get dropped after their label lost three major rock acts. The Roots didn’t just re-think their sound or image after that — they bailed entirely to London, to learn more about “British DJs, sound engineering, and one another.” (239) I also found a Quest interview where he says that “the only new CD we had was Method Man’s Tical. Whenever I hear Tical, it gets traumatic.” Then they made their debut, Do You Want More?!!!??!

Two albums later came Things Fall Apart. Apparently all that time in London paid off, because they were so musically cohesive that they had decided on “a practice … of numbering our songs consecutively [from] our first indie record, Organix, as the starting point.” (281) Hence, this track listing being numbered 54–71. And is the album art horrifying to you? When the record was put out in 1999, it came with five possible CD covers, and you know what? They’re all equally horrifying. So I think that’s on purpose.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, this mostly kicks ass. They have some gimmicky hip-hop moments, like the wordless skits “Act Won (Things Fall Apart)” and “Table of Contents,” where they fiddle and scratch for a few minutes before declaring that we are now attuned to the sounds. I’m starting to enjoy hearing how different rappers handle the tradition of the hip-hop skit. It’s fun listening to them act. Also the ability to trace the lineage of different samples and features and references. See: a Gang Starr ref on “Adrenaline!”, the Radiohead ref on “Don’t See Us,” the scatting lifted from Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force on “Double Trouble.” Not to mention Crocodile Dundee on “100% Dundee.” Malik B and Black Thought trade lines deftly on “Without A Doubt” and “Act Fore…The End?,” and nearly every song has a feature, from Common to DJ Jazzy Jeff to Dice Raw (“Diedre Vs. Dice”).

This was recorded in the Electric Lady at the same time as a number of other artists working on their magnum opuses, including Erykah Badu with Mama’s Gun and D’Angelo with Voodoo. Go back and look through the personnel on all three and you’ll see a lot of the same names. Erykah sang the breathy hook on “You Got Me,” and fellow Soulquarian J Dilla produced “Dynamite!” The staggering spoken word in “The Return to Innocence Lost” is Philly writer Ursula Desire Rucker, frequent Roots collaborator and the next poet I’m buying tickets for.

I think the biggest advantage of being a hip-hop band with live instrumentation is the fact that you have so much control. It’s impossible not to bob your head to “The Next Movement,” and then they’re quiet and delicate. See: the lilting piano on “Step Into The Relm” and the guitar played like a piano on “Ain’t Sayin’ Nothin’ New.” But even when they just make record scratches and video game noises (“3rd Acts: Vs. Scratch 2… Electric Boogaloo” and “The Spark”) it all sounds musical. Best is “Act Too (The Love Of My Life),” the most beautiful beat I’ve ever heard, practically whispered. And it sounds so nice. It’s borderline indie pop music.

Questlove has an interesting perspective on his past, and all he says of the success of this record is: “My Shadow side would have appreciated what it accomplished, the fact that it expanded our platform and amplified our voice, that it let us play bigger venues.” (281) Kind of a dark take, no? Anyway, maybe now that I’ve read Music Is History, I’ll read Things Fall Apart.

Review #415: Look-Ka Py Py, The Meters

Review #417: The Shape of Jazz to Come, Ornette Coleman

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