The Roots

The Tipping Point

(Geffen; 2004)

By Peter Hepburn | 26 January 2008

Being from Minnesota, I’m used to all the Lutheran jokes and stereotypes about neighbors named Sven & Ole. People expect me to talk funny, and I eternally disappoint them (every once and awhile I feel compelled to throw in an “eh” or extended vowel just to make someone maintain their faith in the simple purity of the Midwest). Truth is I’d never even been to a Lutheran church service until my niece’s baptism this last Sunday (and the largest Lutheran congregation in North America is a mere six blocks from my house!). It was an alright service—a bit long, but not as horrible as I had anticipated. What really caught my interest though, and which kept me chuckling for awhile, was the Episcopalian version of the lord’s prayer that was used.

Now I am by no means a church-going individual, but I have a basic grounding in the Catholic church and know about forgiving trespasses and the lord who art in heaven. This Episcopalian lord’s prayer was quite simply the most dumbed-down, minimal-vocabulary piece of church culture I had ever seen. Do people really not understand what “trespasses” are? Is it necessary at this point to lower ourselves to the lowest common denominator?

If anyone would seem to be a proponent of this weakened form of theology, I have to believe it would be Black Thought. Maybe ?uestlove really has bought into a boring Roots, but after (quite enough) listens to The Tipping Point, I have to believe that this was more BT’s doing than the legendary, afro-ed Roots leader. Very simply, the vast majority of the new Roots album lacks what has made their earlier albums so exciting: spontaneity, originality, musical chops, and a sense of purpose. This is the dumbed-down, Episcopalian version of the Roots. Hip-hop fans be warned.

The lack of drums on the first single should have been enough of a warning flag, but somehow I was still hopeful. The use of Scott Storch as a producer struck me as odd, but, as ?uestlove points out in the liner notes, he was a member of the group circa Organix (1993), and has produced other tracks for the group. When you hear the album as a whole though, it becomes clear that the Roots have lost their way.

There is very simply no experimentation on this album, and the wonderful, jazz-infused instrumentation of Do You Want More?!!!??! (1995), Things Fall Apart (1999), and even portions of the tepid Phrenology (2002) is no more. In its stead we get lots of samples, simple, repetitive beats, and far too much Black Thought. I have always maintained that Black Thought is a decent, perhaps even underappreciated MC, but after hearing this much of his mid-level flow and weak lyrics, I have to seriously reconsider my position. In the past the musical brilliance of the group has made up for him, but stripped of that his weakness becoming embarrassingly clear.

The album is not without a few redeeming qualities. Every once and awhile an interesting hook is thrown in, but they get ground down pretty quickly. “Web” is the standout of the album, mostly due to a great, ultra-simple beat based on ?uestlove’s jaw-dropping use of the cymbal. “Boom!” does alright maintaining BT’s quick rapping, but the beat is poorly expanded (it ends up coming off as a Phrenology b-side at best). Devin the Dude and the amazing Jean Grae save “Somebody’s Gotta Do It” from the soul-sampling mediocrity it seemed destined for (not to mention that it rides a beat that owes a lot to Dr. Dre). The bonus track, “The Mic,” is fun, and at least has the thrown-together feel that I had hoped for from an album built from jam sessions.

I remember hearing Things Fall Apart for the first time and not understanding it at all. That wasn’t a simple album by any stretch of the imagination—?uestlove managed to construct an album that married jazz, rap, R&B, and even drums & bass and it was a beautiful thing. Listening to it now, I’m still blown away by the classics (“The Next Movement,” “You Got Me”) and the experimental brilliance of it (“Step into the Realm” remains my favorite Roots track). The Tipping Point doesn’t aim half as high as their magnum opus, but even then it falls pretty flat. I’m still hopeful they’ll be able to recapture the spirit of their earlier albums, but I’m not holding my breath for the next album.