In December 2017, after close to 30 years as frontman for The Roots, Philadelphia MC Black Thought went viral. As a guest on Funkmaster Flex’s Hot 97 radio show, Thought was recorded eviscerating the instrumental for Mobb Deep’s “The Learning (Burn)” for a solid 10 minutes. The clip was reposted endlessly via socials, allowing a new generation to tip their caps to the man they knew only as the vocalist of Jimmy Fallon’s house band while longtime Roots fans relished the opportunity to spout “I TRIED TO TELL Y'ALL” onto their timelines.
Since their very inception, however—and more prominently since their critically acclaimed third album, Illadelph Halflife—the band itself has existed in a similar space, lauded as kings to a dedicated fanbase and respected, if not briefly adored, by those engaging in a touristic capacity. But by the time the band’s fourth album, Things Fall Apart, dropped, The Roots were hardly the scrappy outsiders that caught even dedicated hip-hop heads by surprise with Illadelph Halflife. If that album’s coffee-shop-smooth Raphael Saadiq-featuring “What They Do”—and its hilarious “Big Willie”-lifestyle-parodying video—brought the group a new level of attention, Things Fall Apart was their chance to capitalize on it. And they would, miraculously, without compromising the traditionalist hip-hop and jazz influence that had previously defined their sound.
Things Fall Apart was grittier by design. Drummer and producer Questlove has gone on record about the influence beatmakers like J Dilla (producer of “Dynamite!”) had on him to this end. The first half of “Table of Contents, Pts. 1 & 2” is built on a breakbeat with severely distorted drum hits, while “100% Dundee” features a shimmering piano riff layered over actual beatboxing. (This iteration of the band featured two beatboxers, Rahzel and Scratch.) The instrumental for “Without a Doubt” is damn near a note-for-note remake of the one Philly gangsta-rap godfather Schoolly D rapped over on 1986's minimalist anthem “Saturday Night.” But the groove is also ever-present. “The Next Movement” is steadied by one of Leonard “Hub” Hubbard's funkier basslines, and though its chorus melody is the clear earworm, what is lead single “You Got Me” without its sentimental string arrangement? The song, produced by one-time band member Scott Storch, its chorus authored by then-unknown Jill Scott and performed by Erykah Badu, brought the group visibility they'd never known, thanks in no small part to another groundbreaking music video and some unique musical flourishes, including a drum 'n' bass outro.
And though the group’s musicality was always one of its primary selling points, they cast a superteam of MCs for Things Fall Apart, all of whom were performing at peak levels. There was Thought as pacesetter, and then essential contributions from the band’s Malik B and Dice Raw. Common and Mos Def shine righteously on “Act Too (The Love of My Life)” and “Double Trouble” respectively, as do then-unknown young guns Eve and Beanie Sigel on “You Got Me” and “Adrenaline!” There’s an especially affecting spoken-word performance from Ursula Rucker at the end of the album just before “Act Fore…The End?”, a “hidden” track on physical copies of the record. At 18 songs in total, Things Fall Apart plays the same way it did at the time of its release: as a purely perfect album—one continually cherished by those in the know and no less the treat for latecomers.