Illadelphia Freedom

The Roots threaten to make their big move with Things Fall Apart

That brand of abiding love is one of the elements that distinguishes the Roots from their peers. For many rappers, hip-hop is the only game they know, not so much an artistic choice as a career imperative. But the Roots come from backgrounds in jazz, painting and literature. Thompson honed his drumming skills by backing his father, '50s doo-wop singer Lee Andrews, at oldies shows in Atlantic City. He has an estimated 9,000 records in his collection, covering every imaginable genre of music.

For Thompson, turning to hip-hop actually meant giving up a promising career as a jazz drummer. But, like his bandmates, he was overcome with a near-evangelical zeal to expand the boundaries of hip-hop. When you love anything that much, you're liable to get a bit overprotective. That explains "Ain't Sayin' Nothing New," the latest installment in Black Thought's continuing rant against the obviousness of most commercial hip-hop. It's an infectious groove, if the lyrical sentiment is a bit timeworn by this point.

But, as usual, the Roots' greatest heights on Things Fall Apart come from more surreal, artsy moments. The album's best track, "Dynamite!," layers a smooth, Barney Kesselish jazz-guitar riff over Thompson's metronomic beats (so solid you'd swear it was a drum program). Black Thought unleashes an unbroken flow of words like the bebop soloist he is at heart, and every verse is punctuated by a unison chant of "Touch this illa5th dynamite." It's silly, joyous and impossible to resist.

Everything about Things Fall Apart carries with it the sense that this could be the Roots' big moment. After suffering through two years as guinea pigs on Geffen's urban-music department, they've found a much more supporting environment at MCA. Their profile has increased since illadelph halflife because of their acclaimed work on Erykah Badu's debut album, Baduizm (she returns the favor with a sultry vocal on the flamenco-flavored track "You Got Me"). And early reviews for the album have been outrageously glowing.

The group itself seemed to sense these rising stakes while they worked on Things Fall Apart. The self-proclaimed perfectionists completed 145 tracks for the album, then painstakingly whittled them down to 18. During the recording of the album, Thompson confidently told XXL, "We're building the perfect beast."

Unlike many of their peers, the Roots can also take that perfect beast and enhance it onstage. Without any glitz or pyrotechnics, they can deliver three hours of live-band music that quietly explodes the boundaries of what hip-hop can be in a concert setting. As Thompson recently told The Source, "[We're] just here to feed hip-hop the proper vitamins and minerals. And, you know, we're hip-hop's colon cleansers."

The Roots are scheduled to perform on Wednesday, March 10, at Club Rio in Tempe, with Common. Showtime is 7 p.m.

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