Some folks just aren't feeling it. The Tipping Point, the Roots' new joint released earlier this month, has received perhaps the worst reviews of any of the group's six other CDs. "The band's seventh album doesn't lack for nerve," The Washington Post said, "but that doesn't necessarily make it good." The Village Voice said, "The Roots opt for a bare, bland approach that's not so much 'bad' as just ordinary."
Those type of critical cuts are unusual for the Grammy-winning, hip-hop band, whose records are typically well-received (most times enthusiastically acclaimed) in pop and rap circles. But Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, the Roots' Afro'd drummer and band leader, calmly dismisses those who don't get the nuances of the group's constantly evolving art.
"With some critics at mainstream publications, it's the equivalent of a vegetarian judging a beef rib contest," says Thompson, who's calling from a hotel room in Boston. The Roots play Nissan Pavilion tomorrow night. "My whole point of doing this record was to make a simple record without any fireworks. I don't want to have to tap dance for critics, so to speak, to prove that, 'Hey, I can do a rock song, a country song. Look at me.' Whatever. I just wanted to concentrate on 10 songs - no additives, no preservatives."
After the success of 2002's Phrenology, the Roots' ambitious, multi-layered last album, Thompson says the Philadelphia-based group wanted to strip the production down to driving rhythms and shift more of the spotlight on Black Thought, the band's woefully underrated lyric assassin.
Thompson says, "Doing Phrenology, it was so easy for me to juggle and create a show and get dangerously close to being a minstrel. If anything, I thought Phrenology would be the album we would get bashed for because there was so much going on."
Despite the lukewarm reviews and modest radio and video play for the first single, the club-friendly "Don't Say Nothin'," The Tipping Point entered Billboard's album chart at No. 4 with first week sales of 109,000, according to SoundScan. Granted, the album doesn't boast the sweeping, experimental production of its gold-selling predecessor, and it's not as cohesive or sonically rich as Things Fall Apart, the Roots' 1999 commercial breakthrough.
But Tipping Point, named after the 2002 Malcolm Gladwell book, is not a bad album by any means. In a way, it's more accessible than the previous two CDs. Even at its most pedestrian, the set, overall, is far beyond the aimless pap passing for genuine hip-hop these days. "Web," an old-school, free-style number, showcases Black Thought's marvelous rhyme-spitting prowess. And "Din Daa Daa," a hidden bonus track and a remake of the George Kranz dance classic, displays the band's tight musicianship.
"This album speaks to hip-hop heads over 25," Thompson says, "those whose reference point is 1988."
Together for more than a decade, the Roots, a six-man band, have long established themselves as an exciting live act. Their shows, at times, mix refined jazz instrumentation with the rock-the-house energy of old-school hip-hop. The arrangements are usually open and thoughtful. Sometimes, the guys get funky and free with some hard, head-banging metal. After backing Jay-Z, Eminem, Erykah Badu, Jaguar Wright and others, there's seemingly no style the band can't touch.
"The Roots are the only group of black musicians with a pop contract," Thompson says. The group's label is Geffen/Universal Records. "That's some sad [stuff]. The art of black music seems to be going down the drain."
To keep the art afloat, Thompson says the Roots have always done their part to push the boundaries of black music, to expand it while honoring the contributions of such musical heroes as Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Rakim.
"A tipping point is the beginning of a phenomenon, where everything begins," Thompson says. "We have the critical acclaim and the fan base without a Top 10 single or a dance or a party hit. That's an achievement - to build from 0 to 900,000 supporters," he says. "My biggest disdain is for somebody to say about a Roots album, 'Oh, that's just regular Roots.' I like the fact that there are seven distinct Roots albums."
The Roots and 311 play Nissan Pavilion, 7800 Cellar Door Drive in Bristow, Va., tomorrow night at 6:30. Tickets are $27.50 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or by visiting www.ticketmaster.com.
Hear Rashod Ollison on the radio, Tuesdays at 1 p.m. on Live 105.7 and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on WTMD-FM 89.7.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun