On their fourth album, Things Fall Apart (MCA), Philadelphia’s Roots navigate the divide between hip-hop’s cynical underground and its hedonistic mainstream by barreling straight down the middle, largely oblivious to the expectations aimed at them from both sides. Since 1987 the Roots have been the very incarnation of a deep love of hip-hop, and on their first three albums they struggled to strike a balance between mature lyrical content, musical innovation, and the fundamentals. (It was the indelicate employment of the first two by bands like Digable Planets and Arrested Development that spawned “alternative hip-hop”–an appellaton “real” hip-hoppers, the Roots included, can’t bear.) Their second album, Do You Want More?!!!??!, went apeshit with audacious instrumentation; they brought in topflight jazz players but had no good plan for how to use them. On their third, Illadelph Halflife, they tried to make up for it by dabbling with samples and loops, hip-hop staples they had previously shunned. (“Illadel PA, live without a DJ / And it’s been that way since Sergio Valente,” raps Black Thought on the new album’s “100% Dundee.”) But Things Fall Apart, whose title is swiped from a novel by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, would be more truthfully labeled “Things Come Together.” The rhythmically complex rapping of Black Thought and Malik B is intertwined with good stuff from guests like Mos Def, Common, and Dice Raw, and the instrumental schemes cooked up by drummer and bandleader Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson are nearly perfect. The band–which also includes bassist Leonard Hubbard, keyboardist Kamal, and human beat box Rahzel “The Godfather of Noyze”–has figured out how to stay in the pocket even as they inject subtle accents with machinelike precision. And instrumental guest spots, like DJ Jazzy Jeff adding scratches to “The Next Movement” and jazz cellist Diedre Murray riffing on “Diedre vs. Dice,” add flavor without overwhelming the tastebuds. This is the deepest hip-hop album I’ve heard in years. The first of these shows, which feature the Roots’ old Chi-town pal and new MCA labelmate, Common, is sold out. Sunday, 9 PM and 1 AM, House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn; 312-527-2583 or 312-923-2000. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by T. Hopkins.