Rappers would have their fans believe that they’re
off-the-cuff, spontaneous thugs who are just as likely to bust out
a freestyle verse as a handgun. For every rapper that sounds
believably spontaneous, there are two dozen more who sound like
they spent hours looking for a word that rhymes with Hennesy.
The Roots have always had an advantage in this department: Their
tight, jazzy arrangements sound jammy enough for lead MC Black
Thought to effectively “freestyle” over. Their
“rap band” status, as well as their undeniable skill,
has always made them seem looser, more capable and more natural
than your average MC.
On 2002’s Phrenology, the Roots made key strides in
avoiding the dreaded “novelty” corner into which their
musical proficiency threatened to paint them: The album
incorporated more common rap elements — drum machines,
synthesizers — into their accomplished jam. At that point,
they had avoided real errors.
Consider their first misstep, The Tipping Point. For the
first time in the group’s career, their skill as songwriters
and composers is called into question. Never have the Roots sounded
colder, more calculating and utterly out of step with their core
Like Phrenology, The Tipping Point delves into
sounds and textures that aren’t considered classic Roots, but
that’s hardly the album’s problem. Nearly every song on
The Tipping Point sounds like a starry-eyed love letter to
current hip-hop trends, approximating the genre’s hollow fads
while sacrificing much of the Roots’ charm and appeal.
First single “Don’t Say Nuthin’ ” is an
obvious rehashing of dirty South rapping, complete with blips,
bleeps and an aggressive, rumbling chorus. It’s not exactly a
Lil’ John production, but the chorus betrays any good
intentions. “Don’t Say Nuthin’ ” is
unquestionably one of the worst pieces to bear the Roots’
name on it.
Perhaps even more disappointing is that Black Thought’s
phoning it in as a lyricist. “I don’t care / Long as
the bass line’s bumping / The drum beat’s banging away
/ Make one move and I’ll blow you away.” What the fuck
is that supposed to mean? “Stay Cool” is nearly as bad:
“Stay cool motherfucker / Ya’ll know the rules.”
These examples may not seem that offensive in the context of
current mainstream hip-hop, but Black Thought and the Roots have
earned themselves stricter scrutiny, and on The Tipping
Point, they don’t measure up.
Not everything is bad, of course: “Web” is minimal
and loose, riding a bopping bassline to jazz-hop ecstasy.
“Why (What’s Going On?)” and the hidden track
after it close out the album gracefully, as the Roots remind the
listener one time before they bow out that there have been good
times in the past and probably will be in the future. But the
present is bleak: The Tipping Point is a pandering,
uninspired mess of an album from a band too talented to try and get
away with pap like this.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.