The Tipping Point (Geffen)
Most modern R&B and rap records don't bother with musicians, instead building rhythm-driven tracks from drum machines and computerized instrumental samples, which is why veteran Philadelphia hip-hop band The Roots and new R&B crooner Ricky Fanté emphasize that their new albums feature live players.
The Roots' The Tipping Point and Fanté's Rewind both also offer tributes to the past. After 2002's experimental and forward-looking Phrenology, The Roots return to the stripped-down, rap-driven sound of their initial mid-'90s work; they also offer a shout-out to the '80s rap they grew up on, incorporating it into their sound. Fanté reaches back even further, presenting gospel-influenced soul that re-creates the '60s sound of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. Both albums draw on the past to distinguish themselves from other contemporary R&B, but The Roots bring nostalgia into the present, while Fanté rests too comfortably in the past.
The Roots rank among hip-hop's most acclaimed acts partly because they ignore the emphatically catchy choruses and gangsta posturing of most of their peers. The Tipping Point is less jazzy and inventive than the band's last couple of albums, but it's still unlike anything else out there today.
As usual, the group's core membersvocalist-rapper Black Thought, percussionist ?uestlove, bassist Hub and keyboardist Kamalenlist a diverse group of guests, including avant-garde guitarist Captain Kirk, percussionist Frank Knuckles, rapper Jean Grae and comic Dave Chappelle, among others. Black Thought's lyrics continue to celebrate community, encourage others to live with pride and positivity, criticize gold-chain playas and whitewashed black entertainers (Ruben Studdard in particular), and push for political activism on the local and national levels.
The Tipping Point takes its title from the landmark book by Malcolm Gladwell, which claims that all social movements are born on the grassroots level. But despite the suggestion of seriousness in the title, The Roots are in a more playful mood than usual here. There's the catchy "Don't Say Nothin'," with Black Thought mumbling an indecipherable chorus over a spare, quirky rhythm track. For every piece of social commentary, such as the police-state warning shot of the reggae-driven "Guns Are Drawn," there's a fun groover like "In Love With the Mic."
Usually critics' favorites, The Roots have received some criticism for the blatant accessibility of the new album's material. But who says progressive musicians and activists can't have some fun, especially when a join-the-party blast like The Tipping Point still offers plenty of pointed commentary?
Fanté is receiving loads of hype for how well he mimics the classic soul of Memphis and Muscle Shoals. Like Ellis Hooks, who works a similar vein, Fanté is a talented and convincing singer. Unlike Hooks, though, his lyrics only rarely move the style forward to the 21st century.
Fanté certainly gets the old sound right. The arrangements feature long, bluesy notes on a Hammond B-3, short, choppy guitar rhythms, whispery female harmonies and the spare, funky backbeat that defines classic soul. On "Why," which uses a depressed and dangerous inner-city scene to set up a series of spiritual questions, Fanté makes the sound relevant to today's world.
Too often, though, there's a museum-quality factor to Rewind that the Roots avoid, even as they lift a sample from Sly & The Family Stone's Everybody Is a Star and pay tribute to Rakim and other '80s rappers. Fanté's right in realizing that there's power in those old chords, and that vocal testifying over a church-inflected sound can still move people. But instead of rewinding his themes to match the music, he needs to fast-forward his lyrics to make the music he loves connect with the streets he walks today.
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