"Hip-hop, it's not pop like Kylie Minogue," insists charismatic Roots leading man Black Thought on "Star," an audacious reinvention of Sly And The Family Stone's "Everybody Is A Star," and the first track on The Roots' new album, The Tipping Point. It's a nice sentiment, and it's designed to appeal to hip-hop's paradox-ridden obsession with credibility, but it rings false, especially in the midst of a song built on the framework of one of the poppiest, sunniest, and most mainstream moments of ornery soul genius Sly Stone.
The Roots' members have always had a love/hate relationship with pop. The Philly outfit's phenomenal last album, 2002's Phrenology, boasted a single ("Break You Off") so radio-friendly that D'Angelo refused to sing on it, lest he compromise his all-important credibility. At the same time, it featured an arty suite ("Water") seemingly designed to chase the teenyboppers away. "Star" repeats that dynamic in miniature, with the bang-up Stone cover giving way to jazzy, bohemian spoken-word rambling about "hypnotic donkey rhythms." Whether the group likes it or not, The Roots has developed sharp pop instincts over its long, distinguished career. In concert, it uses its album tracks as rough outlines for epic jams and dramatic transformations, but it wouldn't be such a titanic live force if its albums didn't provide such rock-solid structures.
The Tipping Point boasts an embarrassment of pop tracks even more infectious than its lead-off single, "Don't Say Nuthin'," whose sinister, futuristic synth lines swerve into the lane immediately alongside the Knight Rider theme. "Guns Are Drawn" contains urgent guitars, some incendiary political rhetoric, and what ?uestlove, in his witty and perceptive liner notes, describes as an intentionally "dirty" sound. Meanwhile, Black Thought's masterful flow exudes adult sexuality and cocky sweet swagger throughout, especially on "Somebody's Gotta Do It," where he's joined by ?uestlove favorite Jean Grae, Mac, and the otherworldly falsetto of Devin The Dude. On the aptly named "Stay Cool," Black Thought takes a lush, joyful Al Hirt groove for a three-and-a-half-minute joyride. By contrast, the album's least compelling and most orthodox songs reduce the group's complex musical alchemy to Black Thought's rhymes and insistent drums. The Tipping Point may not boost The Roots' Soundscan numbers to a point commensurate with the acclaim and respect it commands, but the set marks another triumph from a group that seems incapable of producing anything less.