For most of the 90s, The Roots were the best-kept secret in hip-hop. They’d already amassed a cult following by honing their skills on the road, cementing their reputation as the best live performing band on the circuit. But after releasing three critically acclaimed albums, Organix, Do You Want More?!!!??! and Illadelph Halflife, mainstream success had eluded the iconoclastic ensemble. On their fourth album, however, Things Fall Apart – named after the classic novel by Chinua Achebe – they finally achieved commercial success without compromising their artistic integrity.
“The real arrival of The Roots”
Recording at the famed Electric Lady Studios, The Roots immersed themselves in the creative energy of a place that sparked the neo-soul movement and the Soulquarians collective, and which had produced other landmark albums such as D’Angelo’s Voodoo (2000), Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun (2000), and Common’s Like Water for Chocolate (2000).
Prior to the release of Things Fall Apart, which hit the shelves on February 23, 1999, The Roots were in a place of transition and the stakes were high for their next project. In an interview with Complex in 2014, Black Thought recalled how the band were reevaluating their mission at the time. “It was relatively early on in our careers… Although there are people who regard Do You Want More?!!!??! as our first major release, I think Things Fall Apart was the real arrival of The Roots, so to speak.”
The album features stunning production from Questlove, Kamal Gray, James Poyser, Jay Dee, and Scott Storch, all of whom contribute to a sonic masterpiece unlike any previous effort from The Roots. Combining the group’s unparalleled live instrumentation with classic sampling (like James Brown’s ubiquitous “Funky Drummer”), Things Fall Apart was a watershed moment in hip-hop. Not only did the production fire on all cylinders, but Black Thought made his ascent as one of the elite MCs in the game.
Hard-hitting, lyrically superb
It was on Things Fall Apart that Black Thought began to separate himself from other mere mortals on the mic. His back-and-forth interplay with Most Def on “Double Trouble” is undoubtedly one of the hardest hitting and lyrically superb tracks of all time. Another classic cut off the album features Thought and Common on “Act Too (The Love Of My Life)” expressing their adoration for hip-hop.
For the album’s first single, “Adrenaline!,” the story goes that the late, great Big Pun had agreed to jump on the track because Thought appeared on “Super Lyrical,” from Pun’s debut album. But after Pun got arrested for past warrants and The Roots were up against a deadline, they invited a pre-Roc-A-Fella Beanie Sigel to guest star on the track. Making his first appearance on record, Sigel steals the show with a virtuoso performance that announced his arrival as one of the next risings stars from Philly.
While Things Fall Apart is full of iconic cuts, the real crown jewel is “You Got Me.” Produced by Scott Storch, “You Got Me” is based on Thought’s real-life experiences juggling touring and relationships. The chorus came courtesy of the then-unknown poet and songstress Jill Scott, and featured a verse credited to “Eve Of Destruction,” better known as future Ruff Ryder Eve.
Though Scott performed the song’s hook, The Roots’ label insisted on a more high-profile singer, and Erykah Badu fit the bill. With the addition of Badu and Questlove’s unforgettable drum solo, “You Got Me” became a classic. It was The Roots’ first Top 40 hit, peaking at No.39 and earning them a Grammy award for Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group.
Breaking the mainstream
After grinding for almost ten years as the hardest working crew in hip-hop, Things Fall Apart secured The Roots the commercial success that they long deserved. The album was the group’s first to go gold, eventually selling over a million copies.
The Roots would go on to release several studio albums before taking over as the house band for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. But out of all their impressive releases, Things Fall Apart remains the group’s crowning achievement. It proved they weren’t just a jazz-laced hip-hop collective, but a well-oiled machine that could create innovative, alternative hip-hop that also appealed to the masses. The album title speaks to the dissolution of culture but, for The Roots, things were finally falling into place.