The Roots, Prince Paul, and TLC
23 February 1999
Things Fall Apart
If the Roots are the best hip-hop band of all time, then Things Fall Apart is their greatest record. This isn’t a collection of singles, but a statement about the evolution of hip-hop as an artistic movement. The challenge was simple: could hip-hop artists produce an actual album and not just a collection of singles? This is suggested as well on the first track, “Act Won (Things Fall Apart)”—“Hip-hop records are treated as though they are disposable. They’re not maximized as product even … [or] as art”.
Although it was considered brilliant when it was released, there is no doubt that the importance of this record has only grown over time. Now it is essential, a classic, a gold standard by which all other hip-hop records before and since should be measured. It is the single most influential hip-hop record since Eric B. and Rakim’s 1987 debut, Paid in Full (a fair comparison since the Roots’ MC, Black Thought, is the best rhymesmith since Rakim).
If hip-hop had become weak and ostentatious by 1999, then 10 years later, much of the genre has become a mockery of itself. Things Fall Apart is a concept album about what it means to be in hip-hop and what the music can do for the soul if done properly, if done with TLC by a group of musicians who understand hip-hop’s history in such a way that it can be channeled for future generations.
There is not a single weak track on this record, and it can—and should—be played continuously. There are some standout tracks, though, the best being “The Next Movement”, “Double Trouble” (with a killer rap duet featuring Mos Def), and “Act Too: Love of My Life”, the only love song I’ve heard written for hip-hop as a whole. Says Black Thought, “Sometimes I wouldn’t-a made it if it wasn’t for you / Hip-Hop, you the love of my life and that’s true”.
Most people are drawn to the album’s biggest single, “You Got Me”, which features guest spots from Erykah Badu and Eve, and was originally written by Jill Scott. It is an astonishing and timelessly beautiful song with a kind of openly romantic honesty that is absent in hip-hop today. Drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson may be one of the best drummers in the world, period, and the producers allow Thompson to sample himself by ending the track with a drum-and-bass-inspired backbeat staccato.
But, “You Got Me” is just one of 18 solid tracks that all seamlessly blend into each other with an album production reminiscent of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Things Fall Apart is a massive collaboration of talent—Black Thought, Questlove, Kamal Gray’s keyboards, Leonard Hubbard’s bass, second MC Malik B’s skills, and a host of guest musicians and artists (DJ Jazzy Jeff, Common, D’Angelo, Beanie Segal, Scott Storch, Mos Def, etc.).
Listening to hip-hop now, it is shameful to see just how extra-terrestrial the music has become (and not in a cool, Parliament Funkadelic kind of way). But if we educated our youth on the true meaning of hip-hop and its roots—socially-relevant lyrics, jazz, blues, and rock and roll—then we, as a people, would be in a much better position to vocalize our thoughts and our emotions through positive music. The Roots’ Things Fall Apart is a quintessential record in the fight against ignorance because it challenges the hip-hop community to expect more of itself and hold the community accountable. Shyam Sriram
23 February 1999
A Prince Among Thieves
It’s safe to say there hasn’t been a concept album in the hip-hop world nearly as effective and self-realized as Prince Paul’s A Prince Among Thieves before or since its conception. Over the ten years since the album’s release, there have been other valiant efforts at hip-hop concept albums—namely Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak, MF Grimm’s American Hunger, and MF Doom’s Mmm Food. But the thing they’re all missing is the actual substance and imagination that Prince Paul mustered up. The aforementioned albums deal with either realistic issues directly or obscure, bizarre references (I’m talking to you, Doom), while A Prince Among Thieves thrives in the simple nature of storytelling. And where Paul’s earlier production on De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising was highly conceptual, it didn’t have the cohesive storytelling and imaginative premise that his own pet-project did.
A Prince Among Thieves is an entire world created by Prince Paul, and he has complete control over the story, the characters, the beats, and the overall experience. There are a number of things that made the album significant. Most importantly, he recruited some of the era’s best emcees to fill the roles he had planned out. Tariq, the main character that strives for a record deal, is played by the highly underrated and relatively unknown Juggaknots’ Breeze, with additional appearances by Big Daddy Kane as a pimp, Sadat X and Xzibit as inmates, and the best part of all—Chris Rock and De La Soul as the neighborhood crackheads.
Not only was A Prince Among Thieves a testament to the talent of Paul, but also to that of the late ‘90s alternative hip-hop world. This was a culmination of all his best work rolled into one, and its meticulous planning and inimitable delivery leave it as one of the landmark albums in hip-hop history. John Bohannon
23 February 1999
Surprisingly scoring one of the decade’s best R&B albums with 1994’s CrazySexyCool, TLC took a long five-year vacation (precipitated by everything from group member T-Boz’s sickle cell anemia to the band’s bankruptcy) before returning with the decidedly mediocre FanMail. Barely featuring group sparkplug Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes (sadly, it would be the last album the group released while she was alive), Fanmail is largely missing the sass and the sense of fun that carried this merely moderately talented group through two successful albums.
This multi-producer hodgepodge features a well-past-their-primes Dallas Austin and Babyface (with no Puff Daddy and only a cameo from Jermaine Dupri), and goes heavy on the goopy balladry, with ghastly adult contemporary slow jams like “Dear Lie” and “I Miss You So Much”. In retrospect, you could have waited for TLC’s greatest hits compilation to catch this album’s good moments: the playground singalong “No Scrubs”, the electro-hop “Silly Ho”, and the surprisingly effective rock ballad “Unpretty”.
FanMail went on to sell a kazillion copies and win a handful of Grammy Awards, so I may be in the minority here, but the amount of copies that line the bins of used record shops these days is probably the most telling fact about this album. One would have hoped that a half-decade would’ve provided enough time to buy much better material. Mike Heyliger
// Notes from the Road
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