The Roots: The Tipping Point

The Roots
The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point belongs to ?uestlove, that round, Afro'ed mound of bountiful resound who, pound for pound, greases the beats and creases the rhythms with such zest that hip hop's usual drum samples seem like cloned sheep by comparison. Still, my take on TP is about 178 degrees away from ?uest's description of it as "the sum of our six records and 12 years as a band"--the group's "biggest step" to date. With many tracks derived from crystallized jam sessions, the disc lacks the stylistic depth of the band's best work, hewing to a basic template of beats and rhymes more assiduously than any Roots release since Illadelph Halflife.

Yet on a memorable handful of cuts, the beats are glorious. Not since the heyday of Keith Moon has a non-jazz drummer carpet-bombed a mix with the sort of thwock-and-awe omniscience ?uest provides. Throughout the first half of Tipping, he opts mostly for tasty backbeats and energetic fills, but he steadily raises the ante beginning with the break-beat joyride "Web," which segues into "BOOM" without easing off the rhythmic throttle. The scintillating "Din Dadda," the final tune in the 16-minute triptych "Why? (What's Goin' On?)," showcases ?uest aping whatever scatted phrases his band members toss out. And the climactic closer, "Melting Pot," finds him minting an indelible funk-soul groove that sounds like Archie Bell and the Drells or Booker T and the MGs on espresso, paving the straightaways and banking the turns in support of inspired solos from guitar, organ, and flute.

It's probably inevitable that the lyrical side of TP's beats-and-rhyme equation would suffer by comparison. Lead rapper Black Thought is perceptive enough to avoid being typecast as a gangsta or a backpacker ("I'm a real 'hood nigga/Not a hood-a-lum," he spits), but sometimes that nuance can lead to ambiguity. The band's preoccupation with their lack of commercial success creates a similar dilemma. Is their "virtual" duet on a heavily interpolated rendition of Sly Stone's "Everybody Is a Star" lampooning or aspiring to the rewards of celebrity culture? Is their perceived placement in the pantheon of hip hop tinged with superiority or solidarity? Because Black Thought is best at battle rhymes that alternately snarl and counsel, mixing political wisdom with pop cultural references, the answers are uncertain. More fundamentally, TP's lack of denser, more adventurous arrangements makes the absence of departed second rapper Malik B. more noticeable, even despite welcome cameos from Jean Grae and comic David Chappelle. In any case, muddled tracks like "Guns Are Drawn" (how does one respond to police brutality--with threats of payback or turgid reggae-flavored nonchalance?) are not up to Roots standards.

Of course, just because Philly's finest release an uneven effort doesn't mean you can sleep on it. So cue up your mix tape and find the 15 to 20 minutes of material that will goose your party into another gear for the rest of the year.

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