Very few hip-hop groups make it to their fourth full-length recording, and perhaps only the Roots have made it to that level while still ascending. Although lyrical and musical vision is sorely lacking from most hip-hop (as Puff and Master P have proved, vision isn't necessary to bum-rush the mainstream goldmine), such qualities are cornerstones of the Roots' music. Their second recording, 1995's Do You Want More?
, and its follow-up, 1996's Illadelph Halflife
, intelligently linked hip-hop to its musical forebears funk and jazz, and their lyrics provided unique, post-nationalist hip-hop critiques. On Things Fall Apart
(named for the Chinua Achebe novel) the sextet takes on a more sombre tone, but at no cost to their musical innovations. "If we had to depend on black people to eat, we'd starve to death," says Denzel Washington, sampled from Mo' Better Blues
, at the outset of the recording. It's not self-pity--rather, the group frequently returns to the theme of how many African Americans confuse uniformity with unity. Musically, the group is at its best with guests such as Mos Def and Talib Kweli from Black Star contributing some old-school fun and technique to "Double Trouble". Erykah Badu's supple vocals on "You Got Me" are offset by innovative percussion, including an organically developed jungle beat. At a point when most rappers are running on fumes, the Roots are synthesising new ideas. --Martin Johnson