Life Like A Double Negative - The Roots' Things Fall Apart turns 20

And you are all…

From the backseat of an old, white mini-van, coming through my headphones as it spun around in my Discman, Things Fall Apart began revealing itself to me.

It is, of course, the kind of complicated record that is still revealing itself to me now.

This was in February 1999—a Saturday afternoon, a few days after the album, The Roots’ fourth full length, was released. I was 15—overweight and sad, a total loner; I was more than likely wearing corduroy pants that were too baggy for me, with cuffs that were probably frayed and dirty, and a chain hanging from my belt loop, connecting back to my wallet.

I grew up in a rural town in the Northwestern part of Illinois—a number of hours removed from the allure of Chicago, Freeport, even in the 1990s, did not have a lot going for it. What you could call a depressed community—it, since, has only become more depressed, it had a Wal-Mart, K-Mart, and a Shop-Ko1, among other things; however, if you wanted a larger variety in places to spend your money, as I so often did as a teenager, you had to drive a little less than an hour East to Rockford.

As a young kid, and even as a sullen, fat teen, especially after I turned 16, going to Rockford was cause for excitement. I don’t know if this trip to Rockford, on this Saturday afternoon in February, was specifically designed around my need for two very specific things, but I am going to guess, since I was a greedy child who had a tendency to pester, the items that I so desperately required played a big role in the trip that day.

One of the things I needed was a copy of The Perks of Being A Wallflower2, purchased from a Barnes and Noble; the book had just been released—the Wikipedia entry for it lists February 1st as its publication date. This was before it was relegated to the hallowed halls of the ‘Young Adult’ section—I’m not sure when that happened, but upon its initial release, it was filed neatly in the C’s in Fiction.

The book was one of the earliest titles published by MTV Books—and because of it, it had been advertised heavily on the network with a commercial; a commercial that had caught my attention.

The other thing that I needed was a copy of Things Fall Apart by The Roots—which had just released on February 23rd; this was, more than likely, purchased at the Best Buy in Rockford using one of the myriad Best Buy gift cards I had been given for the holidays. The original run of Things Fall Apart on CD had multiple covers to choose from—all of them, in retrospect, are horrific images; all of them have been referred to as ‘visual failure in society.’

I went with the one featuring a burned out church.3

Prior to this, I had limited knowledge of The Roots—I was familiar with the single “What They Do,” taken from their 1996 effort, Illadelph Halflife—mostly because of the self-aware, satirical video4 that accompanied it.

It was Things Fall Apart’s first single, “You Got Me,” that had caught my attention this time around—specifically the eerie way Erykah Badu sings the refrain, as well as the song’s incredibly unsettling video—mirroring elements of “Just” by Radiohead, but with much more visceral urgency.

Seeing that video, much like hearing the album those first couple of times during such an impressionable part of my life, stopped me in my tracks.

We don’t even come to see our own…

The first thing you hear on Things Fall Apart is best described as a disembodied voice.

The album’s first track—the obligatory intro—aptly titled “Act Won (Things Fall Apart)” is Things Fall Apart’s thesis, or mission statement, as it were, executed in the form of what can best be described as a sound collage, juxtaposing a large portion of dialogue from the Spike Lee film Mo’ Better Blues with snippets of music pulled from previous Roots albums, interjected throughout as the conversation between Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes continues to unfold, and escalate.

The conversation is based around Washington’s disappointment that, as a jazz performer, playing what is, at its core, an inherently Black form of music, his audiences are primarily white; Snipes, Washington’s volatile foil in the film, explains to him why this is—“The people don’t come because you grandiose motherfuckers don’t play the shit that they like,” he barks. “If you played the shit that they liked, then the people would come—simple as that.”

The intro ends with a brief excerpt from a ‘hip hop activist’ named Harry Allen, who states, “…Hip-hop records are treated as though they are disposable. They are not maximized as product, not to mention as art.”

It incenses me that our own people don’t realize our own heritage…

Things Fall Apart, as an album, was born out of a long span of time full of creativity for The Roots and its associates, as well as an unprecedented amount of artistic freedom—give or take. 20 years later, it’s the kind of album that could still be made today, though it is a total product of its time (e.g. pre-millennium tension); in a bit of a bitter contrast, it, however, is not the kind of album that The Roots are capable of making today.

The Roots have not released an album since 2014; the group’s Wikipedia stated that, three years ago, they were allegedly working on a new studio effort entitled End Game—this has yet to surface, and truthfully, I doubt it ever will.

Once hip-hop innovators, as well as pillars of a specific movement within the genre itself, the group has now resigned itself to cashing easy paychecks performing as the house band for human laugh track Jimmy Fallon—at first, joining him for his stint hosting “Late Night,” then, following him as he was promoted to host of “The Tonight Show.”

In his memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues, the group’s charismatic drummer, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, discusses that the day job at NBC gives the group both a place to rehearse, as well as an almost endless amount of rehearsal time so that they sound tight for the “Tonight Show” taping.

Helping keep the band’s performing dynamic sharp is one thing—but I feel like the “Tonight Show” has, perhaps, stifled them creatively, and more than likely monopolized their schedule so even if they wanted to put together another record, they simply wouldn’t have the time.

Mo’ Meta Blues is not a terrible book, but it’s not a great book either. It, like so many other memoirs or autobiographies by musicians, is full of great stories, or ancedotes, but suffers because Questlove is not, by trade, a writer.

One of the stories he does spend time elaborating on is how Things Fall Apart was recorded as part of a long stretch in the studio working with a collective dubbed the Soulquarians—an kind of revolving door that involved The Roots, Common, Erykah Badu, and D’Angelo. The way he shapes it in Mo’ Meta Blues, albums for Common, Badu, and even The Roots, were recorded at Electric Lady Studio as a way to make use of time that had, originally, been booked for D’Angelo’s second album, Voodoo—a long gestating, difficult project that was eventually released at the very beginning of 2000.

Everything you just said is bullshit…

To say that, musically, thematically, and lyrically, Things Fall Apart is a dark record, is an understatement. Even in its more hopeful, playful, or jubilant moments, it remains, overall, a cavernous and claustrophobic listening experience—one that pulls you down into the darkness the moment it begins and rarely, if ever, does it relent.

20 years down the line, it’s still just as important, and urgent of a record now as it was the day it was released.

Things Fall Apart is not a perfect album, or a flawless album, but that didn’t stop it from becoming one of my favorite records of all time—one that, as the final statement in the album’s introductory track indicates—is capable of transcending itself to become ‘art.’

It’s a difficult record—one that demands your attention, otherwise you’ll miss something lyrically, or musically. It’s dense and murky; the mostly skeletal drum, bass, and keyboard instrumentation of the earliest Roots albums filled out with additional pieces like guitars, samples, turntablism, and beatboxing. There are no bad songs on Things Fall Apart, but the thing that keeps it from being perfect is that there are songs that are less successfully executed than others, as well as structural flaws—the segue track “3rd Acts” is a little unnecessary, though it does serve as a bit of a palate cleanser to go from the high energy of “Adrenaline!” to the somber, reflective “You Got Me.”

This is, also, a time when The Roots were still concluding every album with a lengthy, unnerving spoken word poem by Philadelphia’s own Ursula Rucker—following the harrowing “Return to Innocence Lost,” there is a lengthy break built into the CD version of the album that gives away, eventually, to the obligatory hidden track.

Things Fall Apart is not a perfect album, but it’s about as perfect of a Roots album as you’re ever going to get—not as clumsy as their major label debut, 1994’s Do You Want More?!!!??!, and not as bloated as its follow up, Illadelph Halflife.

Things Fall Apart clocks in at 70 minutes—long, yes, sure, but it was a time when albums were being written with the running time of a compact disc in mind. It’s a fast 70 minutes—by the time the chilling music box twinkles of “Return to Innocence Lost” begin, it’s difficult to believe that the album is nearly over. Even when the pacing slows, or falters, it never loses its momentum or focus.

It captures a moment in time for the group as well as the collective they were associating with, and more importantly, it captures a feeling—an atmosphere—that they hadn’t been able to tap into yet, and would also, unfortunately, be unable to get back to on subsequent releases.

Go ahead with yourself…

Following the intro, the album effortlessly slides into the two distinct parts of “Table of Contents”—the first, punctuated by heavy distortion on both Questlove’s percussion, as well as the vocals from the group’s main emcee, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter; the second half is noticeably smoother in its sound, and both sections housed within the same track on the record, are marked by similar opening lines—“R to the double O to the T S.”

Even in the album’s first half, it’s very easy to pick up on the meticulous production values on Things Fall Apart—you can hear it on “Table of Contents,” you can hear it in the infectious groove of the album’s second single, “The Next Movement,” a track that sounds crisp, deep, and rich, and you can hear it as the album takes its first stark turn into the desolate “Step Into The Realm,” a track structured around that aforementioned skeletal instrumentation—drums, keyboards, and an upright bass. It’s also assembled in such a way that this instrumentation slowly fades out after so many bars, as Trotter still breathlessly rhymes over an unnerving silence.

Then, without warning, the music returns, packing a punch underneath his next line.

Things Fall Apart really hits a stride, and finds the right kind of balance with its give and take beginning with the bass heavy shuffle of “Dynamite!,” all the way into its second half with the introspective, self-aware “Act Too (The Love of My Life),” featuring a memorable guest turn from Common.

It’s this span of five tracks that, in a sense, makes up the heart of the album—a run of songs that, each of which, includes something that is still as impressive now as it was when Things Fall Apart was originally released. Trotter’s high speed, conscious delivery still astounds. It’s an album like this, and at the very least, a group like The Roots, that introduced a 15 year old me to a world outside of the high gloss, violent, and profane rap music that dominated MTV at the time.

An outlier with rap, I didn’t have to so much sneak it into the house, but Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle or a cassette single of Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin’ But A G Thang” are not exactly stellar examples to the length with which rap music can become art—something more than itself.

Within this middle section, whether intentional or not, it’s when The Roots allow their guest artists to almost steal the show. On the blistering, moody “Ain’t Sayin’ Nothin’ New,” the spotlight belongs to Dice Raw, an associate of the group since the beginning, and still to this day; it’s his second verse on the song, delivered with a palpable, desperate energy, that still hits hard every time I hear it—

Either take me out, or be taken—you think I’m going down? PSYCH—the jury, they’re still deliberatin’. I got half of they kids tied up in the basement—nah, I’m just playing, yo, but that’s how I playin’.

Not to be outdone, as the album winds down its first half and coasts into, what is more or less, its centerpiece, the playful, ramshackle back and forth between Trotter and guest Mos Def on “Double Trouble” is one of the rare, purely fun moments on the record.

Following “Act Too,” Things Fall Apart doesn’t necessarily begin to buckle under its own ambitions, but it does, temporarily, lose a little of its immediate appeal (the two, short, segue tracks don’t help here.) But as it enters what is its final act, the album regains its composure for what you could call the proper closing track—looking at both “Return to Innocence Lost” and the hidden track as an epilogue—the lo-fi, stuttering, Radiohead referencing “Don’t See Us,” and the album’s penultimate moment, “You Got Me.”

If it was “You Got Me” that brought you to the album, buried deep in its final third, this was your moment to get what you came for—unless you began there, and then worked your way back. By the time I was 15, I think I had finally learned how to appreciate the album thanks to OK Computer, Around The Fur, and Fantastic Planet, so I don’t think I skipped ahead—something I would have done maybe just a few years prior.

There aren’t too many ‘hip-hop love songs,’ and it’s tough to say if “You Got Me” could even be classified as one; it is, though, a song about love—but maybe not a ‘love song.’ Like the rest of the record it is pulled from, it’s dark, or at least, bleak in its outlook. Trotter sounds weary and jaded as he recalls a love that moves too quickly and succumbs to suspicion and jealousy. There’s little, if any, resolution to the story on “You Got Me,” but that, also, speaks to the album as a whole—it’s the kind of thing that, through its cleverness and intelligence, provides more questions than answers.

“You Got Me,” stylistically, also shows how diverse The Roots were, and probably still are, with arranging and instrumentation; again, something that is demonstrated throughout the album. Production-wise, they can go from gritty, ominous, nearly lo-fi aesthetics, to slick, bombastic, expensive sounding values. “You Got Me”’s hook was infamously written by Jill Scott—at the time, allegedly not very well known outside of Philadelphia. She also contributed the vocals originally, before the band’s label, at the time, MCA, demanded it be swapped out for someone with more of a marquee name—Erykah Badu, who adds an uncomfortable creepiness that says so much in just the little amount of time she gets.

So while The Roots can provide a smooth, hip-hop groove to the song through live instruments and lush strings, and add an eccentric neo-soul/R&B singer on the refrain, they keep one foot in the streets, as it were, with the inclusion of a then unknown female emcee, Eve—performing as Eve of Destruction, who would later go on to achieve fame through DMX’s Ruff Ryders collective, as well as becoming a solo artist. Eve’s contribution in the song’s second verse—a mirror to Trotter’s first verse—provides a sharp, yet alluring edge to the story.

They aren’t maximized as product, even—let alone as art…

In retrospect, looking at where The Roots came from and what they were building toward by the time they reached Things Fall Apart, it’s almost too easy to see that it marks a definitive end of one phase of the group.

The group’s fifth full length studio effort, Phrenology, is one of the two final ‘Soulquarian’ records—released at the end of 2002, two weeks before Common’s maligned (though now appreciated) Electric Circus. Both are incredibly difficult records—Phrenology is the most experimental thing The Roots had done up to that point, and it failed to match the commercial success of Things Fall Apart, though it was critically lauded.

Phrenology is also where members of the group began departing—The Roots’ secondary emcee, Malik B., left, or was either dismissed due to substance abuse issues—his legacy within the group as well as his personal struggles were detailed through the sprawling ‘open letter’ “Water.” Malik, however, was eventually welcomed back as a guest performer on subsequent albums.

The Roots have released six additional studio albums between 2004 and 2014—save for the high concept song cycle undun, from 2011, none of them have been able to recreate or find that same balance of intelligence and detailed production like Things Fall Apart.

Maybe that’s one of the things that makes it such an important, defiant record—that it simply captures a moment in time when, despite the title the group chose, things actually, if only temporarily, came together instead.

1- I found out recently from someone who grew up in Minnesota that Shop-Ko is more of a lower Midwest thing; it’ not as nice at a Target, and not as dumpy as a Wal-Mart, for those of you who are not familiar.

2- I had nearly forgotten, but during the first year of Anhedonic Headphones, my friend Colin asked me to write something about Perks for his own fledgling book-based blog. I did. And it, effectively, ended his short time as a blogger.

3- I wasn’t able to shoehorn this in anywhere else in this thing, and it was already getting really long, but one thing that The Roots did for this album, as well as for Phrenology, is to compile very extensive liner notes that included little anecdotes or behind the scenes information about each track. The notes for Things Fall Apart, if you get a chance to read them, provide a fascinating look within the world of the album from a different perspective.

4- A short aside: Questlove talks at length about the “What They Do” video in Mo’ Meta Blues—specifically The Notorious B.I.G was furious with the group after he saw the video; he thought The Roots were making fun of him directly in the way they satirized rap videos, as a whole, in the clip. They never got to smooth things over with Biggie; he was killed before they could contact him to apologize.