The Roots have long been critical darlings for their skill as well as their belief in having a serious and committed musical sensibility. After all, the more consequential music is, the more important the people who “explain” it to you become. I wouldn’t be writing about music if I didn’t think there was something crucial to human life in its experience, from its ability to convey the need for political change to the transcendent pleasure of just being wholly consumed by its presence. If I’m not mistaken, some of those same thoughts drive The Roots to move hip-hop from the realm of popularity to the realm of importance, not in the sense of a preening critical elite, but in the way that albums because indispensably communicable, passed on and “got” by successive generations of people who live and die by the altar of their stereos. By weaving Sly and The Family Stone into the first track, “Star/Pointro”, The Roots reveal a pining for the soul records of a bygone era, the kind of music that attempted to start a party and change a few minds, both infectious and exerted in the same stroke.
With a few caveats and nits, they have succeeded. The Roots have come through with the sort of record that I can see showing to my grandkids (should they materialize) to prove to them that my generation knew how to funk shit up and feed our heads at the same time. I would even self-consciously use the phrase “feed our heads” to evoke that rascally era, the 1960s, because I plan on being an esoteric sort of grandparent.
One of the difficulties of grandiosity, as the Icarus myth cruelly reminds us, is that it’s fraught with the risk of failure that increases exponentially with ambition. Calling the record The Tipping Point invites a level of scrutiny I think they should have avoided. The title refers to the pop sociology book, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, which outlines the way in which big change emerges from the proverbial flutter of a butterfly’s wings or the small word of mouth crumbs we toss into the world. The problem with having a conceit such as this embedded in a record (it’s included in a rambling, tedious spoken word end to the intro) is that it leads me to gauge their success in terms far more philosophically framed. What tipping point? Do they consider this record a kind of watershed in hip-hop?
Considered on those terms, it’s hard not to see The Tipping Point as a confused reach and a premature declaration of evolution. If it’s a major success, it’s one of process, a triumph over the dulling effects of contemporary music production, a record that captures much of the catalytic fire of live creativity without sacrificing the outstretched hand of structure. Certainly this feel was strenuously intentioned, a product of inviting friends like Dave Chapelle and fellow neo-old schoolers like Jean Grae (among others) for the extended jam sessions whose distillation became this record. Perhaps The Tipping Point is meant to have that anticipatory edge, the sense that The Roots are attempting to revitalize their genre by threading mainstream hip-hop’s idolatry of the hook with underground hip-hop’s consciousness raising and worshipful sense of musical genealogy. In terms of their own oeuvre, it’s certainly a solid addition, even if it suffers from the molting pain that comes from incorporating music that’s so stylistically against their own grain. At times, they end up sopping up too many of pop hip-hop’s flaws. That nick sounds most evident in some of the lyrical low points that seem stunted by their attempt to mimic the ricochet of freestyling, but only serve to highlight the imaginative constraints of rhyming on the fly.
It’s not surprising that the chemistry in such a Frankenstein cocktail would be volatile, creating songs that sometimes accomplish the virtues of neither of their reference points. “I Don’t Care” takes a stab at the perennial summer club thumper. Despite the locomotively tight drums that barrel beneath the track, it’s mouth-to-mouth for a corpse, particularly with the mid-range R&B chorus that sounds so by-the-numbers, it’s retching. It’s radio edit ready and given their track record as musicians it stinks of concession. On the other side of the coin, some of the more indulgent outings sound like funk amok, unrefined ideas prematurely committed to record. “Why (What’s Goin’On?)” errs on the side of jamming, 16 minutes of groove and scat echo that fight for your attention with pillowed claws. It’s a textbook example of how a mantra can turn into a skipping piece of vinyl and how the intensity of being in a jam session does not necessarily transfer to the people listening to it.
The beats truly steal the shine of The Tipping Point, bolting the listener into grooves so confident and complete, that it sounds like someone telegraphing “move your ass” into your bones. “Don’t SayNuthin’”, which has one of the best drunkenly mumbled threats of a chorus I’ve ever heard, shuffles in on claps and snare, weaving and sneaking, like someone whispering code as they walk past on a crowded street. Here they manage to outdo Timbaland with beats improbably drawn but impossible not to follow. Nearly every rhythm on the Tipping Point sounds titanium taut, a feat of meticulous construction that repeatedly amazes.
Whatever its excesses, The Tipping Point, like almost every Roots record, has no peer group from which to lob any lasting complaints. Even given it’s periodic soft spots, The Roots deserve flooding praise for creating a lit fuse of a record that feels bigger than my immediate capacity to absorb, a long-term joy whose architecture I will still be surprised by years down the road. If “tipping point” doesn’t work well as a metaphor perhaps they could have found a better one in cartography. If this fails to inaugurate a new paradigm for hip-hop, it certainly shows the ways in which audience and artistry need not be a conflict of diminishing returns, and the ways in which the underground and the charts have much to learn from one another. The Roots are the perfect marriage of credibility and accessibility. The Tipping Point is a caught breath on their way to their next incarnation, a melding momentum that just might lead the promise of it’s title.