More than a decade before their current stint as Jimmy Fallon’s late night house-band, The Roots became a highly regarded collective of musicians and emcees on the cusp of gaining recognition aside from rap nerds and critics.
While their prior album’s spawned a hit or two, the crew truly hit their stride with the 1999 release, Things Fall Apart. Many projects released around that time had greater fanfare but few have stood the test of time and created as much impact. And being that it will be 15 years since the day of its release on Sunday, February 23, we decided to take a stroll down memory lane and point out 10 reasons to celebrate Things Fall Apart this weekend or every day for that matter.
1. It Survived Being Released February 23rd, 1999
Multiple blockbuster releases on the same day may be a rarity these days but, in the ’90s, it was hardly out of the norm for high profile albums to compete against each other in the marketplace. Things Fall Apart was no different, as its release fell on the same date as notable albums such as Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP and TLC’s Fan Mail: both of which would go on to be two of the most successful projects of the year.
While Things Fall Apart had way less fanfare compared to the other releases, the actual product was undeniably great and would thrust The Roots into many album of the year conversations (famously losing the Grammy for Rap AOTY to Eminem’s SSLP) and solidify them as a musical force to be reckoned with.
2. The Limited Edition Album Covers
Upon its initial release, Things Fall Apart was made available with a choice of five different album covers for a limited time. The most notable cover depicted a pair of black children fleeing from riot police in Brooklyn during the civil rights era. Kenny Gravillis, the credited designer for the album covers indicated that The Roots’ original idea for the cover was “an illustration of The Roots with Diddy, Puffy Combs back then, at the bottom of the ocean.”
After listening to the album and convincing the crew to explore less scathing options for the cover art, Gravillis researched historical stock images at Bettman Archives, ultimately proposing twenty different selections to the group. While the cover many of us have come to associate with the album was the winner, The Roots loved the images so much that they decided to use an additional four for the limited edition run, thus making for one of the more unique and meaningful album cover stories in Hip-Hop.
3. The Intro
Thought provoking intros to albums may be going the way of the dinosau, but the ’90s saw many acts attempt to make artistic mission statements with their lead-off tracks. The Roots were no different.
Titled “Act Won (Things Fall Apart),” the opening contains excerpts of a conversation between Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes characters in Mo’ Betta Blues. Washington’s character Bleek laments on the state of Black music, saying “If we had to depend on black people, we would starve to death..it makes no sense. It incenses me that our own people don’t realize our own heritage, our own culture…this is our music.” Snipes character Shadow retorts that Bleek’s diatribe is “bullshit,” stating “The people don’t come because you grandiose motherfu*ers don’t play sh*t that they like. If you played the sh*t that they like, then the people would come.”
And while we don’t know exactly what end of the debate The Roots stand on with regards to those quotes, what we can conclude is that it is one of the more artistically significant intros to grace our headphones/speakers and holds relevance to this day.
4. Black Thought’s Elite Lyricism
It never ceases to amaze me that when people list off their top emcee lists, Black Thought is often overlooked. But listeners in the know are fully aware of Thought’s deadly arsenal of lyrical weapons.
Long regarded as a formidable spitter in underground circles, Thought wouldn’t truly start to shine until when TFA dropped. We’d be here all day if I started quoting the plethora of standout bars on this album, but “The Next Movement,” “Without A Doubt,” and “100% Dundee” are just a few examples of tracks Thought left in his wake of terror on the mic for this outing.
5. The Evolution Of Dice Raw And Malik B
Thought’s usually who comes to mind when you think of the lyrical miracles on top of the instrumentation, but Malik B and Dice Raw are well worthy of props for their continued mic support, especially on Things Fall Apart. An afterthought on previous albums by The Roots, Dice Raw stepped up to the plate with standout verses on fan favorites like “Ain’t Sayin’ Nothin’ New,” “100% Dundee,” and the free for all “Adrenaline.”
Malik B, Black Thought’s long-time tag team partner, was as steady as ever. He even got some solo time on “The Spark.” He also displayed his ability to keep up with the uber-talented Thought on tracks like the J. Dilla produced “Dynamite” and “Step Into The Realm”. Following the album’s release, Malik B would depart from the crew but eventually would return to appear on Game Theory and other subsequent albums by the group.
6. Common’s Verse On “Act Two”
The moment you hear the opening seconds of “Act Too (The Love Of My Life),” you can already sense that you’re experiencing something special. And while Black Thought’s verse is a hell of an appetizer, Common’s contribution to the track is the real entree.
Picking up where he left off on “I Used To Love H.E.R.”, the Windy City rep revisits his musical muse, now age 30, to find out she’s undergone more changes: “As of late I realize that this is her fate, or destiny to breed the best of me, it’s like God is testing me/In retrospect, I see she brought life and death to me/peace to us collectively…”
Fifteen years later, I wonder what that verse would sound like if it was recorded today.
7. Beanie Sigel and Eve’s First Appearances On Wax
Things Fall Apart can also be considered the first sign of a musical renaissance in Philly as The Roots invited a slew of local artists to contribute to the album. A prime example of this would be the high powered posse cut, “Adrenaline”, which featured a then largely unknown local rapper named Beanie Sigel. Playing the closer role, the Broad Street bully put up a very promising effort for a rook and served as a calm before the storm that would be his superb Roc-A-Fella debut.
Another future star from Philly birthed from TFA was Eve, who made her recording debut after contributing a show stealing verse of her own to the album single “You Got Me.”
Sigel went on to fame (and more infamously, jail) while the “pitbull in a skirt” went on to score big in music and movies.
8. Unknowingly Introducing Jill Scott And Eve To The World
There’s no denying that when you think of TFA, the one song that instantly comes to mind is the album’s lead single, “You Got Me,” a song that eventually received a Grammy nod for “Best Collaboration.” While the track itself is one of the most indelible singles of the late ’90s, another thing that makes it special were the players involved.
Before she came into her own, Jill Scott was a talented singer/songwriter out of Philadelphia looking for her big break. Said oppurtunity came when she co-wrote and recorded the original vocals for “You Got Me.” Erykah Badu would eventually appear on the final version, but Scott’s work on the record was enough to pique the interest of record labels and she was soon signed to a deal of her own.
9. It Was A Major Catalyst For The Neo-Soul Movement
While Bohemian culture was far from new to Hip-Hop when TFA dropped, what can definitely be said is that it was a major catalyst in the resurgence of the sub-genre in the late ’90s. The recording sessions for the album took place in NYC’s hallowed Electric Lady Studios, coinciding with the recording of projects from fellow neo-soul vanguards such as Erykah Badu (Mama’s Gun), D’Angelo (Voodoo), and Common (Like Water For Chocolate).
Collectively known as The Soulquarians, their refreshing take on music would help nudge open the door that allowed talents like Kanye West would ultimately kick down and influence the next generation in a big way.
10. It’s The Only Album By The Roots To Achieve Platinum Status
When you consider the impact and influence The Roots have had throughout their career, it’s almost criminal for them to have so few plaques. TFA would be their first crack at a gold certified release, reaching that plateau within months of its release.
While Phrenology achieved gold status as well, The Roots only have had only two plaques to show for their discography. But that number turned to three when TFA officially completed its little-engine-that-could crawl to platinum certification on April 22nd, 2013, making it their only project to move a million units thus far.
And it only took 14 years.