Things Fall Apart, the 1999 masterpiece from The Roots, opens with a clip of dialogue from Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, wherein a trumpet player (Denzel Washington) is grousing over the lack of support being shown for (his) jazz by the black community. His band’s sax player (Wesley Snipes) is quick with the retort: “The people don’t come because you grandiose motherfuckers don’t play shit that they like!”
For The Roots, which would it be? Art or party music; cash grabs or authenticity? In a sense, opening the album with that clip expressed everything about where The Roots were at. They’d been questioned by fans and critics alike, and they’d grappled with the identity of both this record and of the group itself.
The following track, “Table of Contents (Parts 1 & 2),” delivers a vintage statement from two of the founders. Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter freestyles over live organ and a series of old-school drum loops courtesy of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. The song’s back-to-basics approach offers a rejoinder, of sorts, to all those nagging art vs. commerce questions: The Roots would just do what they do. And everything else would take care of itself.
From the album cover, Things Fall Apart sure doesn’t look like party music: taken by an unknown photographer during the 1960s, it depicts two black teenagers fleeing from a group of white policemen. Likewise, the title hardly screams PARTYTIME!; it references Chinua Achebe’s iconic novel of the same title, which depicts the destruction of indigenous African culture by European colonialism.
Yet here was The Roots Crew’s hookiest album to date, and by a mile. “The Next Movement” (Say it with me: “We got the hot-hot music, the hot music!”) was an undeniable hit; the album’s centerpiece, “You Got Me,” was even bigger. Whether or not The Roots were consciously and calculatedly aiming for MTV remains up for question, but what cannot be questioned is the straight hotness of the J Dilla produced-“Dynamite.”
Things Fall Apart wastes little time reintroducing the battle rap flavors that flourished on 1996’s Illadelph Halflife. On “Step Into the Realm” and “100% Dundee” you hear Black Thought and Malik B clicking, locking, sparring, challenging each other to new heights. “Adrenaline!” meanwhile, puts on a young Beanie Sigel ages before Jay Z did.
The Roots were no strangers to the guest spot, but Things Fall Apart was the first to cultivate such a truly communal feel and expanding eclecticism. Cellist Diedre Murray and human percussionist Scratch rubs shoulders with an up-and-coming Eve and spoken word artist Ursula Rucker. Questlove’s membership in the Soulquarians collective provided a pipeline to an incredible array of featured musicians on Things Fall Apart, from the conscious hip-hop of Mos Def (“Double Trouble”) and Common (“The Love of My Life”) to neo-soul luminaries Jazzyfatnastees and D’Angelo (keys on “The Spark”); not to mention Jill Scott’s hooks and Erykah Badu’s voice (“You Got Me)”. This mutual appreciation society made Things Fall Apart feel like the capstone of, well, the next movement. Yet somehow, the guest spots never overshadowed The Roots. It all still ends up sounding like nobody but them.
In the end, that opening question of critical acceptance versus popular appeal became a moot one for The Roots and for Things Fall Apart—either way you sliced it, the album was monumental leap forward for the group. “You Got Me” won a Grammy in 2000 for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group and very nearly took home Best Rap Album as well (Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP won out). By making music true to themselves, The Roots made true music for the masses.
For more, check out our recap of the Roots Picnic 2016.