In 1999 there was a collective of neo-soul/Hip Hop artists dubbed the Soulquarians. Deep in the beginnings of rap’s peak era of commercialization, this was a group referred to as alternative. I only bring them up to highlight what this group looks like in hindsight 20 years later. The underdogs, the underground, the artists that stayed true to themselves, their message, and their craft, their insistence of remaining authentic and the music that came from them only got better with age. This group included the likes of Erykah Badu, Common, Mos Def, J. Dilla, D’Angelo, and The Roots among others. And it was The Roots that pulled all of those names together to collaborate on their breakout fourth album Things Fall Apart.

It was the culmination of a room populated by geniuses.

This room around this same time produced such works as Mama’s Gun, Like Water For Chocolate, Black On Both Sides, Fantastic Vol. 2, and Voodoo; some of the most celebrated albums in Hip Hop and R&B. Clearly there was an energy brewing. Things Fall Apart was one of the clearest symptoms of that energy. Allow me to further name drop. While this time and this moment was important for alternative rap, what was done and who was pulled together for it also reverberated outward into the heights of mainstream rap. Introduced through this collective and this project were the likes of Scott Storch who made waves through Aftermath, Eve who hit at the peak of Ruff Ryders, and Beanie Sigel who was one of the biggest acts on Rocafella; each of these labels being the most dominant in early 2000’s Hip Hop, not to mention the Soulquarians being the folks who brought the world Kanye West.

I don’t think it was an accident that the Roots came into their own at this particular time. With three albums in their rearview, they were no strangers to making good music. But, in my opinion, there was a certain comfort and synergy of vision between Black Thought’s rainy concrete stream of consciousness with the band’s gloomy black and white film tones. With all my heart I mean it when I say Thought is no different than any of the great American writers celebrated in academic circles. He is one example in Hip Hop of an artist who isn’t just a rapper really good at doing rap things, but rather a genuinely great writer with absolute power over pen and if he were born in a different time, his message would have simply been delivered through a different medium. This seamless blend of components is only accentuated by the album’s cover. Coupled with the title, this image of two young Black people running for their lives from a team of White police in what appears to be the Civil Rights Era pulls together this thing as a complete work of art. Put the cover in a gallery and write every lyric in the description card.

This album having dropped in 1999 is also part of a brilliant close to a brilliant decade. Every single year of those ten years introduced a handful of albums that creatively propelled the artform light years ahead of where it was prior. These days will be marked by a widespread insistance on breaking the rules; of absolutely destroying every convention and starting anew. On the flipside, the era this album came out in was all about absolutely mastering the rules laid down. The Rakims, Daddy Kanes, Slick Ricks, G Raps, among others presented to a generation a set of color palettes and techniques that would get picked up and used to make absolutely flawless works of art by the Nas’s, Mobb Deeps, Tibes, Biggies, Tupacs, and Snoops of the world, among others. With its unwavering dedication to the boom bap and corner cypher rah-rah style, The Roots slipped this one in: yet another mark of an era. This is that thing that that generation misses so much and is referring to when they talk about how the times have changed. And how perfect of a title for an album that came exactly at the end of such a decade, right before everything started to take on a new shape.

Happy 20 year anniversary to Things Fall Apart!

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