Things Fall Apart is a seriously solid offering of smooth hip-hop. Stop the presses. The third studio album by The Roots is comfortably their finest achievement, and it’s aged like a fine wine since its released 20 years ago. Given the melancholic tone, it’s amazing just how easy and enjoyable it is to listen to. Things Fall Apart is a fluid, continuous listen: understated to the point where it proves to be an excellent backdrop, which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s appropriately structured and remains focused throughout its 70-minute duration, and this is particularly alluring for a modern listener given the amount of over-bloated rap albums we’re dealt with every single year.
I don’t think it’s farfetched to suggest that To Pimp A Butterfly may not have existed if it wasn’t for this record. Jazzy instrumentals and thoughtful flows set it apart from the majority of hip-hop classics from the ’90s, most of which were gangster rap. But not many political albums happen to be this groovy. The sequencing flows wonderfully: it’s just track after track with no interruptions. However, this also prevents anything from Things Fall Apart from truly standing out. I thoroughly enjoy the listening experience, but nothing particularly grabs me in the way I wish it did. There isn’t anything in the realms of “N.Y State of Mind”, “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” or “Regulate”. That’s not to criticise the record as much as it is to suggest that it’s perhaps not quite on the same level as other favourites that came out from the golden age of rap. Things Fall Apart is a very good hip-hop record all the same. Though it may get lost among a sea of classics, it still deserves your utmost attention.8 10
Favourite tracks // The Spark
You Got Me
The Return to Innocence Lost
In many respects it’s commendable that an album can last over 70 minutes and more or less maintain a high standard during that time. It is also strangely disappointing that that is the best thing I can say about Things Fall Apart. I wish I could wax lyrical about the audacity of this track and the bone-shattering truth of that track, but I can’t. The album is pure, unadulterated flow. Well produced, sprinkled with a rich variety of genre samples and beats, it seldom sets a foot wrong. Just one in front of the other until it reaches wherever it’s getting to.
We reviewed Midnight Marauders a few weeks back and in that I hear an album that does what Things Fall Apart does far better. A Tribe Called Quest and The Roots are both audibly East Coast hip hop groups — calmer, more meticulous, and more textured than their West Coast kin — but the latter is understated to the point of anonymity. Maybe I’m too coarse. Maybe the record is too passive. It’s done fine without me for this long in any case. I enjoy it fine in the moment and then it’s gone.7 10
Favourite tracks // You Got Me
Ain’t Sayin’ Nothin’ New
The Return to Innocence Lost
There’s a weight to Things Fall Apart that is well disguised by the smooth flow, slick production and attention-drawing hooks. While it’d be easy to let this album pass by, a closer listen will show its real depths.
For many of my listens, I’ve come for the likes of sinister twangs of “The Spark”, the smooth instrumental on “Dynamite!” and the punchy beat on “Adrenaline!”. However, I’ve stayed for the strong latter third which shows its truer colours, culminating in the closer, “The Return To Innocence Lost”, which has an emotive, spoken-word vocal.
What sets this apart for me is variety on display. For a late-90s release, there’s a healthy portion of hip-hop true to its era, but it’s the smatters of jazz, and the sparser instrumentals towards the end that all keep me engaged. For an album to manage that with a seventy minute runtime is an achievement not to be downplayed. Behind all the smooth instrumentals, there’s a darker, sobering side to the lyrics too, and it makes for a sweet counterpoint between the two.
I’ve had a great time with Things Fall Apart, and I’ll no doubt be returning to it. Heralded as the turning point for The Roots, it makes for an essential album in their discography. But I get the feeling it’s a victim of its own success, providing a record so smooth it can slip into the background and allow its potent lyrical content to go to waste.8 10
Favourite tracks // The Return to Innocence Lost
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