Among mainstream hip-hop acts, few are known for albums that resonate beyond the genre's own idiosyncrasies. But critical acclaim is little reward when rap domination is defined by the number of platinum plaques one collects. For the Roots, a band with notoriously outsized ambitions, the piddling two gold discs they have earned (for 1999's Things Fall Apart and 2002's Phrenology) must seem like further proof that the rap industry is corrupt and rarely celebrates artists who can't sum up their thoughts into a flimsy pop hook or a simplistic rhyme. Thankfully the Roots keep trying to subvert the system instead of joining or rejecting it; their music, at best, strikes a compromise between technical prowess and virtuosity, or rap for rap's sake and rap for art's sake.
Still, this balancing act has generated plenty of hand-wringing, and the title of the Roots' sixth album, The Tipping Point, would seem to hint that the pendulum is swinging in a certain direction. Stripped down to a quartet (?uestlove, Black Thought/Black Ink, Kamal and Hub), the music the Roots generate is raw boom-bap, not genre-blending soul. "Boom" finds Black Thought matching wits with Big Daddy Kane and Kool G. Rap over a hard-hitting drum track worthy of Marley Marl. "Star" loops Sly Stone's "Everybody Is a Star" into a steaming funk jam that seeps into the skin, its mantra haunting the rest of the 55-minute disc.
And did you know the Roots want to be stars, too? On "Star" Black Thought looks skeptically on the young thugs flooding the rap scene, noting, "Like everybody he wanna shine/Young brothers on the grind/Holding something in they spine/ Bowling for Columbine." But then he claims, "To all my peoples the stars it is our time to shine." In fact nearly every song -- barring "Guns Are Drawn," which criticizes the Bush administration's war on terror -- notes how the group is teetering on the edge of full-fledged superstardom (just like Jadakiss's Kiss of Death...is this a trend?).
Over ten numbers (and two hidden tracks), this obsession becomes monomaniacal, eventually overshadowing Black Thought's unpredictable freestyles; bassist Hub and keyboardist Kamal's eerily minimalist performances; and The Tipping Point's magnificent bare-bones sound, cobbled together by a fleet of producers. The Roots may be masters of many styles, from scintillating hip-pop ("Don't Say Nothin'") to futuristic dub ("Guns Are Drawn"), but they aren't known for subtlety. Their rhetorical points are delivered with dramatic force, painting a portrait of how pursuing mainstream fame can become an all-consuming, all-corrupting passion.
Like most challenging, thought-provoking albums, The Tipping Point is an experience, making it difficult to throw down a thunder index that will command listeners to embrace it or dis it. But the last listed track on the album, "Why (What's Goin On?)," is a melancholy end to an engaging and occasionally intense journey. At the outset, it's a lament about the state of the world, as guest vocalist Latif sadly repeats the word "why" over and over again. But by the third verse, Black Thought turns on himself. "Somehow I gotta decide how much I want it," he says, adding, "If I disappear I wonder if the world will know I'm missin'." Consolation only comes at the very end: "Gotta show 'em we can make it."