With each of their seven albums, the Roots have exerted just a little more pull on pop, but it's their fans and collaborators—Eminem, Moby, Jay-Z, D'Angelo—who have tended to benefit. So with every Roots release comes a creative tension: Will they finally reap platinum rewards or continue to be content dragging the mainstream a little bit left? Their 2002 masterpiece, Phrenology, tested hip-hop's rubber-band elasticity with Bad Brains' Afropunk and Blood Ulmer's black rock.
The new The Tipping Point (Geffen), though, feels like the snapback. They've proven they can do anything—whether reimagining late-'80s "golden age" era rap ("Boom!"), revising early-'90s jazz-rap ("Stay Cool"), or rocking guitar-slinging black alt-pop ("Guns Are Drawn"). They've just done each of them better before. With the exception of a seven-minute rewrite of Sly Stone's "Everybody Is a Star" that veers from aggro to ambient, the in-da-club nostalgia of George Kranz's Krautbeat "Din Daa Daa" on "Outro," and the stuttering, mumbling, Timbatunes- baiting "Don't Say Nuthin'," The Tipping Point feels like a strategic retreat, the harnessing of strengths.
Although Black Thought is an intoxicating rhymer, he never commandeers the music the way, say, Ghostface Killah does. Playing in and around the beat like a freestyle master, his voice is just the most important instrument in the band's arsenal. Black Thought's problem—if it is a problem—is the Roots' problem: How does a band that embodies hip-hop's ability to sound any way it wants to impress itself on pop that values surface over depth and breadth? This brilliant album offers no answers.