Deeper Roots

Underappreciated hip hoppers the Roots put their sound together on the new album Things Fall Apart

This is more than just the standard lip service to the endangered tradition we hear so often these days, and the Roots' realist optimism couldn't come at a better time. The approaching millennium has predictably evinced all sorts of apocalyptic ranting and raving, but while Busta and Meth blather about cyborgs and plagues, the Roots concentrate on less fantastic, more immediate horrors: poverty, hatred, depression. Their premillennial fears are intensely personal, and their stance--like Lauryn Hill's--is unapologetically self-righteous. Black Thought even boasts that they've found a "cure to this hip-hop cancer."

The cancer in question is the disease that infects rap with a sense that commitment and optimism have to equal stupidity and weakness. So, aided by the realism that made Illadelph so irresistibly raw, the Roots turn Things' seemingly fatalistic title on its head, bringing their community politics together under the tent of the music they love. Unlike their Native Tongues forefathers, the Roots' optimism doesn't feel naive. It's radical.

Hip hoppers sell the cold, hard heaviness of their (imagined or real) lifestyles as part and parcel of their musical aesthetics, and the Roots' collectivism offers a working-class alternative to the glitzy materialism of Puffy and Jay-Z. "I'm keepin' up hope...in the quarters living modest," Malik raps, while Black Thought puts it more succinctly: "Fuck stardom."

With their new album, the Roots may rise up from the underground
With their new album, the Roots may rise up from the underground

Unlike the Wu-Tang, the Roots' collective mentality doesn't allow for solo ventures. They're a nation, not an empire (and they're protective of their borders: "North Phil, where I'm residin', never let an outside nigga slide in," raps Dice Raw). And despite their petty grumbling about elusive fame and fortune, the Roots seem comfortable in their working-class clothes, grounding their music with hometown pride (and homegrown guest shots), not escapist fantasies. As guest rapper Common puts it on "Act Too," hip hop should be about more than siphoning money from "coffee-shop chicks and white dudes"--even if they are the first ones in line to buy your records.

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