Since drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and rapper Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter formed The Roots nearly thirty years ago while attending Philadelphia’s Creative and Performing Arts high school, the complicated, symbiotic, and fruitful relationship between these artists has defined the group’s rise from underground phenomenon to household name with their current gig as house band on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. The tension between the balance of critical and commercial success flows from the DNA of The Roots and has resulted in the creation of some of the best hip-hop albums of the last twenty years. The Tipping Point, their sixth studio album, demonstrates this tension more fully than any other album in the group’s catalog, reveals a compelling stage of the group’s evolution, and reflects major upheavals in the music industry circa 2004.
Following the back-to-back break-out successes of The Roots’ fourth and fifth studio albums (1999’s Things Fall Apart and 2002’s Phrenology), the group was well poised to build on this momentum when they released The Tipping Point in the summer of 2004. Forces both internal and external to the group during the album’s gestation supplied ample challenges to maintaining this momentum. Within the group, Questlove represents the aspiration to engage critics and fellow musicians while Black Thought symbolizes the desire toward moving and satisfying a popular audience. After the scattered, almost indulgent sprawl of Phrenology under Questlove’s guidance, The Roots chose to let the pendulum swing into Black Thought’s domain with The Tipping Point. At the same time, economic conditions and unprecedented uncertainties within the music industry caused the collapse of MCA, home to The Roots for their last two albums. The Roots landed at Interscope, helmed by industry veteran (and current Beats impresario) Jimmy Iovine, and quickly felt a new sense of obligation to deliver radio hits. To a degree, Interscope’s pressure to push The Roots into more commercial territory resulted in an album that upon its release satisfied neither mainstream hip-hop fans nor long-time fans of the group, but for very different reasons. The Roots’ relationship with Interscope began and ended with The Tipping Point and resulted in the group’s subsequent move to their home since 2006, Def Jam Recordings, under the leadership of none other than Jay-Z. Despite the conflicting forces present during its development, The Tipping Point contains some of The Roots’ best studio work, especially the great one-two punch showcase for Black Thought’s verbal prowess, “Web” and “Boom!” Also, two of the album’s most enjoyable moments are unlisted, hidden tracks that play after the final song, including a loose, energetic crew jam “In Love with the Mic” featuring comedian Dave Chappelle and a cover of “Din Da Da” by German electronic producer George Kranz.
In Questlove’s memoir Mo’ Meta Blues, while describing the choice to name this album after Malcolm Gladwell’s book, he admits, “With most of the records, we wanted the titles to work on three levels: as a reflection of our own career, as a reflection of the hip-hop scene, and as a reflection of the world at large.” Questlove and company may not have realized twelve years ago that this title would take on additional layers of meaning over time. In truth, The Tipping Point is not as strong as the albums that directly precede or follow it, but it remains one of The Roots’ most important albums because it supplies a fulcrum within their catalog by establishing a higher level of production, creating a stylistic template for their following albums, and hinting at the social/political statements to come on their next three albums, Game Theory (2006), Rising Down (2008), and How I Got Over (2010). These albums form a trilogy documenting the nation’s journey from the lowest moments of George W. Bush’s second term to the promise of hope signaled by Barack Obama’s first term and achieve a career high point for the group, which may not have been possible had The Roots not learned the lessons they did while crafting The Tipping Point.
- John Parsell