Black America’s “shining black prince” stares virtually unrecognizable from the cover of the Roots’ sixth studio album, The Tipping Point. Looking as sinister as O.J.’s manipulated mug shot on Time Magazine‘s June 1994 cover, it’s difficult to recognize El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz in Malcolm Little’s crooked nose and calloused countenance. But this coarse character would soon make his transformation from zoot-suited, swine-lovin’ numbers runner to principled leader of an unapologetic movement for black America’s long-sought liberation.
It’s almost as difficult for ardent Roots fans to recognize their beloved band on The Tipping Point‘s ten songs. These natty-headed innovators liberated hip-hop on their sample-free major-label debut, 1995’s Do You Want More?!!!??!, and continued to push the envelope with each subsequent album, humbly displaying a little Malcolm X-like greatness along the way. Since the streets haven’t been watching, The Tipping Point signals the Roots’ adoption of the wild-nigga ethic of Detroit Red as a way to endear themselves to the block and receive some long-overdue ducats.
You gotta respect the Roots’ gangsta. “Give it here and don’t say nuthin’ ” are the only intelligible words in the chorus of the scorching Scott Storch-blessed lead single, “Don’t Say Nuthin’,” which deftly summarizes the Roots’ new approach to stardom. After years of playing to coffee-shop chicks and white dudes (in the words of the perpetually knit-capped Common), the Roots are reaching for the 106 & Park audience. Experimental genre-fucking sounds and leftist poetics take a figurative backseat to straightforward lyrics on top of joints that will “get bitches off the wall,” in Black Thought’s estimation on “Web.” Native Tongue nostalgia is replaced by Juice Crew worship and, in the case of “Boom,” flat-out masterful imitation. Thought’s rapid-fire articulation of Kool G. Rap on “Poison” and Big Daddy Kane on “Wrath of Kane” is hands down one of the best displays of stylistic breadth by an emcee and further evidence that the veteran is “SuperLyrical.”
“Making it” pervades each song on the album, but the ethereal sound of “Star” beckons listeners to contemplate street survival. Thought offers tempered admonitions to “young brothers on the grind” and “kids calling themselves killers” whose death sentence is their desperate desire to keep it real. A sample of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everybody is a Star” anchors the song. The Roots pepper the track with conflicting testimony to stardom’s democracy and its crushing inaccessibility by repeating Sly and company’s vocal interpretations of the line, “Everybody is a star.”
Stardom, or rather infamy, via violence again takes center stage on the album’s most compelling song, “Guns are Drawn.” Aaron Livingston’s emotive wail, West Indian lilt and choppy delivery replace the altogether too smooth croon of talented Roots collaborator Martin Luther, who is featured prominently on the ultra slick “I Don’t Care” and D.A.I.S.Y. AGE throwback “Stay Cool.” Dirty drums and Kamal’s keyboard klangs frame an almost disempowered indictment on the Patriot Act and war. And then Livingston reminds listeners on the heart-piercing chorus, “In the middle of the night/ We fight like barbarians/ In sight of the former might/ You might think that it’s a waste of our time/ And I think you would be right/ ‘Til he drops that rhyme.”
Self-proclaimed “king by blood, soldier by nature” Black Thought and his tireless band take the offensive again under Storch’s fierce orchestration on “Duck Down.” Martin Luther reappears on the hook, his voice better suited to the made-for-MTV track, warning emcees in the Roots scope “to tuck those chains.” In the percussive melee you can almost hear D-Bo’s squeaky bike rolling up on the industry’s versions of Craig and Smokey.
Of course, pop culture fans know that D-Bo “got knocked the fuck out,” and historians will recall that Malcolm was sent upstate. But with most consumers mindlessly tethered to Clear Channel- and Viacom-approved waxploitation, the Roots are willing to take that risk. The Tipping Point bears witness to a brave quartet prepared to enter the belly of the beast for the sake of this music and the people it reflects. As the Roots and friends collectively remark in the album’s most extended moment of self-reflexivity, “It’s a fucked-up job, but somebody’s got to do it.”