15 years ago today The Roots released Things Fall Apart, easily among their finest records. While it’s a damn good album by a band that’s been making compelling hip hop (and putting on one of the best live shows of any genre) for the past two decades, what might be most interesting about Things Fall Apart is what it failed to be, and how in the end it didn’t really matter.
Things Fall Apart was supposed to be the start of a new era for The Roots. Three albums in with a moderate hit under their belts, this should have been the work that pushed them over the edge. With the newly formed Soulquarians, this record was also supposed to introduce the world to their vision for music in the new millennium. Albums by Erykah Badu and D’Angelo were waiting in the wings and Things Fall Apart was to be the first shot fired in a string of would-be classic records. In practice Things Fall Apart was successful, though it fell shy of its grand ambitions.
The record produced a hit with You Got Me and ended up going platinum, but that was pre-file-sharing, and the single peaked only at #39. And while the Soulquarians went on to produce some great Neo-Soul albums, the movement was looking more like a footnote by the time the mid-2000s rolled around. Interestingly, though, drummer and bandleader ?uestlove seemed to have seen this coming. The album starts with an excerpt from Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, a heated exchange on the characters’ frustration at not reaching the audience they want. The final shot is “you grandiose motherfuckers don’t play shit that they like, if you played the shit that they like the people will come!” countered by another voice (not from the movie): “inevitably hip-hop records are treated as though they are disposable; they’re not maximized as product even, not to mention as art.”
It’s this dichotomy that informs The Roots’ approach here, and might help explain why the album never attained those grand ambitions. Things Fall Apart desperately wants to connect, to be a part of the fabric of Hip Hop, but is unwilling to do it on anyone else’s terms. What it seems the Roots intended to do with Things Fall Apart and the Soulquarians records in general is to internalize and expand on their heroes (Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, etc. according to liner notes). Their humble quest was to make timeless music and have it resonate with the world. All bullshit, numbers, and context aside, that doesn’t really matter, because what we have 15 years later is a great Hip Hop record.
Which might be a bit of an undersell. Musically and compositionally Things Fall Apart sees the Roots at the height of their powers. As a pure headphone experience, not many records even aspire to what The Roots pull off here. The bass is luxurious, the pocket in every song extra-deep allowing details to skitter in and out from ear to ear. The arrangements are complex but never feel overstuffed, every part has its place, though it might take you a few dozen listens to hear each one.
Take Act Too (Love Of My Life); what starts as a simple three-note horn melody is doubled, then tripled. Sampled female vocals add rhythm, a syncopated bass line wafts in from three closed doors away, and by the time you work out what’s happened the parts snap into focus, Black Thought’s verse is front and center and what should have been a ho-hum by the book buildup becomes something much more. That’s not even considering the lyrical contributions from Black Thought and Common (including Common’s near thesis statement in the line “when we perform it’s coffee shop chicks and white dudes”) or the gorgeous Philly Soul string section the track sees itself out on.
Every song on display here stands up to similar dissection and if nothing else, this record deserves a revisit for that reason alone. And though Things Fall Apart didn’t quite live up to its makers lofty aspirations, The Roots didn’t need it to in order to reach the level of universal respect as musicians and cultural ambassadors they’ve strived for. And they didn’t even need to rewrite history to do it, they just had to sign up as the Late Night house band for an SNL-dropout.