The Tipping Point
n a skit on his eponymous show, comedian Dave Chappelle set out to study what music would evoke spontaneous dancing in different ethnic groups. His choice for uptight white office workers was John Mayer, which was fairly accurate. His pick for black barber shop employees—drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of the Roots—was less expected. The Roots fill a much vaguer niche, shifting (or vacillating) between mainstream rap’s rootsy consciousness in their role as Jay-Z’s live backing band; the middle underground backpacker set’s princes; and the captains of Philadelphia’s neo-soul movement, as personified by Jaguar Wright and Jill Scott.
If Chappelle had simply wanted a popular beat maker (and if such distinctions were important for a brief comedy sketch), he could have had Swizz Beatz or Mannie Fresh come in with a drum machine. ?uestlove, and the Roots as a whole, have a more complicated place in modern music.
Far from Chappelle’s devices, on the other end of their persona, lie some of the critical accolades their new album The Tipping Point has received. NPR’s Tom Moon had high praise for the album on the day of its release, saying “it reminds me of the spontaneity of early hip-hop, a spirit that’s almost vanished from highly scripted current hits.”
It’s the kind of praise from critics that spells commercial and long-term critical doom for acts like the Jurassic 5 and Blackalicious. If artists are praised primarily as a reminder of a better time, they’re unlikely to ever be remembered on their own merits.
But The Tipping Point showcases a group a bit too smart to be caught in that trap. “Don’t Say Nuthin,’” with its single clicking string, sounds as gritty and cold as any Shady Records production, neatly sidestepping any attempt to typecast the Roots as stodgy old-school throwbacks.
“Don’t Say Nuthin’” is just one sound on an album that is jammed with styles pushing past each other on their way to different ends of hip-hop. Its common theme—the rift between violence, and the responsibility to confront it, with the desire to just party the night away—permeates the album. The violence (references to the Patriot Act, multiple allusions to razors and “bowling for Columbine”) is backlit with an endless party, with the Roots as selective doormen and tasteful DJs. Just keep the fighting out in the parking lot, or else, as “The Web” clearly states: “the first nigga that move or disturb the groove / I’m going to have ya’ll flicks on the evening news.”
“I Don’t Care” is the album’s most explicit realization of that theme. “I don’t care as long as the bass line’s bumping, the drum line banging away / Take one move and I’ll blow you away / One false move and I’ll blow you away.”
Like an album-length extension of Brother D’s 1980 proto-rap single “How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise?” The Tipping Point asks both music makers and partygoers how the world will ever become a better place when they’re too busy dancing to improve it. If they think that sounds heavy, they should remember this is a record that shares its name with a book about the nature of change. “Not every record is a record just to shake behind”, “Guns Are Drawn” reminds them.
This intriguing message doesn’t, however, translate to an entirely intriguing album—several of the tracks, most conspicuously the fragmented “Duck Down,” are forgettable castoffs, and the jams wear out their welcome well before they end. The upside of the assembly-line process of mainstream hip-hop, those “highly scripted hits” that NPR’s Moon was talking about, is that they don’t allow for excess fat, dithering offshoots or loose ends. While hip-hop albums frequently run long with bloated guest tracks, unfunny skits and tiresome filler, great mainstream singles, and even quite a bit of the not-so-great ones, are characterized by a tight sense of pop brevity. The Roots remind us they’re “hip-hop, not pop like Kylie Minogue,” but genre isn’t the only reason Kylie doesn’t embark on seven minute soul-reggae jams.
At a time when hip-hop seems to feverishly race toward the outer edges of the genre, the Roots, playing the middle ground, balancing at the tipping point, run the risk of condemnation from all the disparate groups likely to hear them this year. But doing so is a bold move in itself. As a listening experience, The Tipping Point is a decent album, a rough transition at best and a stumble at worst. As a pulse-check for one of hip-hop’s most watched and least pigeon-holed group, it’s promising.
Reviewed by: Erick Bieritz
Reviewed on: 2004-07-29