All grown-up

Mar 24, 1999 at 12:00 am

Rap is 20 years old. Hip-hop culture, 25. Through three decades, the culture that gave us the perfect beat is now the world’s most exploited form of music. Everyone from Kool Keith to Kool-Aid Man has tried to rap or breakdance. Few have done it right.

The Roots’ fourth album, Things Fall Apart, establishes them as the living manual on how to survive turbulent changes in the life of hip-hop culture. Now signed to MCA and buoyed by the eighth musketeer called Dice Raw, hip hop’s only legitimate "band" controls all of the genre’s elements. This is the sufferers’ album, oxygen to the dehydrated brain that is commercial rap, and vindication over the Fisher Price-quality ’80s loops, gutless violence and misogyny inherent in today’s lyrics. The album, based on the book by African novelist Chinua Achebe, is a superb experiment in live instrumentation and daring vocal arrangement.

"Wuh-wh-whu-one-two, one-two/ That’s how we usually start/ Once again, it’s the Thought/The Dalai Lama of the mic/The prime minister thought/ This is directed to whoever in listenin’ range." Black Thought, one of hip hop’s steadiest voices, flows bloodily throughout the album. His collaborations with Mos Def ("Double Trouble") and Common ("The Love of My Life") are classic in content and layout. Bandmate Malik B also continues to improve.

Drummer-producer ?uestlove’s (pronounced "Questlove") strumming of female voices on "The Next Movement" and his retexturing of Schooly D’s legendary "Saturday Night" on "Without a Doubt" are prophetically appropriate. Erykah Badu also sings and rhymes on the first single, "You Got Me," a realistic portrayal of love and understanding uncommon in rap music today.

The Roots’ recorded material consistently matches the intensity and energy of their world-renowned live marathons. MCA joined the experimental spirit by releasing four different album covers, each bearing a historical photo that supports the Things Fall Apart concept. This band is special – needed – because it purposefully breaks rules that keep other rappers conventional. Things speaks freedom to convention. For that reason, it is destined to become a standard.