Things Fall Apart: A Critics Roundtable

In celebration of the Roots’ groundbreaking release, eight critics chime in on the album’s cultural impact

March 28, 2019

In the moments after the 2016 US presidential election, I noticed black artists being burdened by non-black people with the question of “What do we do now?” People asking poets to speak up, or offer some way to hope. People demanding musicians make The Great Political Album that would make sense of America’s current predicament. But the thing that has always been true is that a current predicament for some has been a constant predicament for others. A country arrives where it is, in part, because people refuse to be honest with themselves about its history. It is not cynical to insist on honesty in the place of hope, which is hollow, at best. Hope is a word that feels good and rewarding, but that offers very little in the way of introspection or the results that might come with that introspection.

For some, the political aftermath of 2016 is not at all new. It is a moment that has been present and accumulating for years and generations before this one. Because of this, there are albums that have aged well. Albums that fearlessly engaged the root of political anxieties, taking aim at institutions that have always held power in a higher regard than people. Things Fall Apart is one such album, released by the Roots in 1999.

After decades in the world, Things Fall Apart still works, ultimately, because it is an album that tells a public that their fear is not unique, that it has been living in many for a long time, and that it can only get worse. It grabs its audience by the collar, and turns faces to a world that has always been on fire. And then the music ends.

To travel through the album’s history and the world it was released into, I’m joined by freelance critic and columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle, Tirhakah Love; author of essay collection Prince And Weird Little Black Boy Gods, Scott Woods; lead singer and songwriter of the band Hawks and Doves, Kasey Anderson; poet and music critic, Itiola Jones; co-host of The 411 Podcast, Samia; music critic and editor, Marcus J. Moore; and director of the Noepe Center for Literary Arts, Mathea Morais.

The Roots - The Next Movement

In the late ’90s, rap music had already undergone the coastal tug-of-war between the East and West. Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. were dead and another upcoming star, Big L, was shot and killed in New York City in 1999. There was a tension rising between the conservative news anchors and parents who thought rap was just living out its logical violent conclusion, and the artists at the forefront of the mainstream, eager to cash in on the commercial advantages that infamy can provide.

The aftermath of rap’s coastal battle was a fracture within the genre, one that further separated the sonic and aesthetic divide of both sides. Meanwhile, the South was continuing its gradual rise to the near-top of the game, with Master P’s No Limit records churning out a run of hit albums despite criticisms from hip-hop purists about the mass production lessening the quality of work. The framework of No Limit Records allowed for the similar rise of fellow New Orleanians, Cash Money Records, which signed a 100 million dollar distribution deal with Universal in 1998. Rap music was barrelling towards a commercial peak. Under a public eye that was both anxious and intrigued by the genre, the music was beginning to chart its path to cultural and commercial dominance in America. Conscious rap, as it is called by some, often found itself at odds with the more commercial instincts of music marketing, but even some of the stalwarts of that corner of the world found themselves highly decorated. Lauryn Hill’s debut garnered her international acclaim and OutKast achieved a new level of success and interest with Aquemini.

During all of this, Philadelphia rap collective the Roots found themselves firmly in the midst of mid-career confusion. The group, readying for their fourth album, was poised for a mainstream breakthrough, as each of their previous three albums (1993’s Organix, 1995’s Do You Want More?!!!??! and 1996’s Illadelph Halflife) had all begun to garner more critical and commercial respect. Despite this, the Philly natives were still seen by some as a gifted cohort that was, perhaps, too odd a collective to flourish. They boasted a singular MC in Black Thought, and a measured and steady creative presence in drummer and producer Questlove. But they also featured beatboxers and noise-makers Scratch and Rahzel, and their live show was immersive, but sometimes frantic. They weren’t particularly showy and didn’t seem invested in much beyond making good music and letting it speak for itself. This is, of course, good, but pushed them slightly away from grasping mainstream success in the mid-to late ’90s.

Around this time, the Soulquarians collective found themselves descending upon Electric Lady studios in New York. The collective, which featured the Roots, Common, Bilal, Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, fashioned themselves as a sort of contemporary response to the Native Tongues collective of the early ’90s which was helmed by A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers. The earlier crew was cobbled together, largely, because of their shared interest in bringing abstract and conscious lyrics to the mainstream. The Soulquarians were an extension of this and in the late ’90s found themselves in the midst of a creative burst, working in the studio on a trio of albums that would be released in the year 2000: Common’s Like Water For Chocolate, D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Badu’s Mama’s Gun. The Roots were preparing to kick off the unfurling of this Soulquarians era with Things Fall Apart, set to be released in 1999, with hopes of defining a direction for the group. The stakes were impossibly high.

By the time a few more Soulquarian albums came out...It felt like the Roots had messed around and changed black music.

Scott Woods

Tirhakah Love

As much as culling a crew of otherworldly musical spiritnauts like the Roots, Q-Tip, D’Angelo and Erykah Badu may seem like an obvious moneymaker [in 2019], back in their nascent stages, it wasn’t a done deal that the whole Soulquarians thing would really work. Things Fall Apart was the first inkling that maybe this shit could actually work – the moment where those soulscapers could be every bit as flighty as they wanted to be and still make bank from it.

Scott Woods

When you look at what came out the year before, the whole Soulquarians era was a sea change in hip-hop with little warning. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and OutKast’s Aquemini were about as much heads-up as audiences got, and that was largely coincidental. In 1999 hip-hop was a solid dozen years deep in gangsta rap with no signs of abating. When Things Fall Apart dropped [that same year], things changed quick. By the time a few more Soulquarian albums came out a year later it felt like the Roots had messed around and changed black music.

The Recording

The recording process was rigorous – the band picked through 145 songs to choose the final tracks that made the album. Emphasis rested on experimentation. Time signatures were twisted and the album’s shift in sonic and thematic tones happen at breakneck speed. Black Thought’s rhymes are all at once harsh and tactile. It is an album of confrontation, that feels so unconcerned with the listener’s emotional comfort that it might become easy to forget that the album is carefully and masterfully crafted.

The album begins with audio from a scene in Spike Lee’s 1990 film Mo’ Better Blues. In the scene, Bleek Gilliam is arguing with his bandmate Shadow Henderson about how not enough black people come out to see them play jazz. Bleek insists that it’s about history, and black people aren’t respecting their own history enough – that they aren’t supporting their own during a singular cultural moment. Shadow interjects, insisting that everything Bleek said is bullshit.

“The people don’t come because you grandstanding motherfuckers don’t play the shit that they like,” Shadow slurs. “If you played the shit that they like, people would come.”

Mathea Morais

That the Roots somehow chose the 14 songs on Things Fall Apart from 145 blows my mind. When Things Fall Apart came out, it was a salve. It let me know that though hip-hop had broken my heart, it was thinking about getting ready to apologize. Like many, I was confused as to how we’d wound up smothered under shiny suits and bottles of Cristal, but Things Fall Apart opened the window and let us breathe. At the same time, there was no denying that Things Fall Apart represented a new level of griminess in the Soulquarians sound. Erykah Badu and D’Angelo had always made weed-smoking grooves, acceptable for when you wanted to take a break from DMX and Fat Joe, but the production on Things Fall Apart was gritty enough to make even the hardest Mobb Deep fan take notice.

Kasey Anderson

I’d love access to the 100+ discarded songs, be they fragments or beats or bars Thought left unfinished. It could be that discarding an enormous amount of material was simply part of the Roots’ process but everything about Things Fall Apart seems so meticulous, measured, precise and direct I have to assume there were nearly infinite directions the album could have gone. Once the band was able to distill concepts [and] songs down to what they believed to be essential for the album, the decision didn’t always come down to whether or not any given composition was “good enough,” but whether it fit within the context of the album as a larger work.

After three moderately successful LPs, Things Fall Apart was the moment when fight-or-flight kicked in for the Roots.

Marcus J. Moore

The Politics

When the Roots set out to record Things Fall Apart, it was with the idea that they had to maneuver the shifting landscapes of rap music: corporate, commercial and generational. And they had to do this while remaining true to the group they had become, invested in risks and challenging themselves beyond expectations. The title of the album comes from Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel. The novel, which traces the impact and influence of British colonialism in Nigeria, is chaotic and incisive. Achebe insisted that the major work of the book was to portray the people of his society as autonomous individuals, pushing back against the years of African people and characters being portrayed by European authors, who were insistent on flattened portrayals. Things Fall Apart is an album that seems to attempt to honor the book’s commitment to chaos and honesty, and a world where marginalized people are treated with a serious reverence.

The Roots - Table Of Contents (Parts 1 & 2)

Politically, the late ’90s – particularly 1999 – represented a time of great fear and great promise. With the year 2000 looming, there were those who were both hopeful and fearful for what the turnover would bring. One major problem was anxiety around computers. Though they were making vast technological leaps, many computer programs could only represent four-digit years by the last two numbers, meaning that the year 2000 might be indistinguishable from the year 1900. This glitch set off a panic that computer systems would crash and leave financial institutions in ruin. Insurance companies sold hefty policies covering the potential failures of businesses due to the Y2K bug and gun dealers and surplus stores saw spikes in their businesses, due to survivalist prepping for the unknown.

What the Roots were attempting to express, politically, is that the apocalyptic landscape had already arisen and been present for entire groups of people, many of whom were forgotten in the wash of discourse about computers and end times. Why care about a computer if no one where you live has access to the internet? Why worry about the turn of the century wrecking bank accounts if you keep your money in a shoebox? The album’s aim was to speak to the fears and anxieties of a people who were on the outside of the greater stretch of American Concerns, and who had been living with fear that wasn’t at all tied to linear time. The construct of the American Experiment had been failing some people, locally and globally, for a long time.

Things Fall Apart was released into the whirlwind of a frantic and uncertain America, and the slow and mournful march into that unknown. The varied walls of sound on the album matched that energy: the lead single, “You Got Me” was a sparse dirge, carried by Erykah Badu’s monotone crooning and a piercing verse from Eve, in the early stages of her career. But elsewhere, like on “Table Of Contents (Parts 1 & 2),” the beat splits and splits again, creating an uncontrolled chaos. An album’s politics are sometimes present in the lyrics, and sometimes present in the sound. And sometimes, there is an album that reaches for both.

The Roots - You Got Me ft. Erykah Badu

Mathea Morais

“You Got Me” was a story about real love. A story that addressed the fact that sometimes relationships get ill. And while I do wish the song wasn’t tainted by the record company’s insistence that Erykah Badu sing the chorus instead of Jill Scott, after years of songs about all the goings on in clubs, to hear, “If you were worried ’bout where/I been or who I saw or/What club I went to with my homies/Baby don’t worry you know that you got me” was, in fact, a beautifully stated “fuck you” to the macho status quo.

Tirhakah Love

When I listen to Things Fall Apart today, it’s such a different brand of political messaging – at least based on what we called political – than the kind I hear today. If Things Fall Apart was seen as a political record, I think that idea of political had to be based in this idea that the localized happenings on the street were an essential part of the definition. Like, Thought was giving you the shit he saw in South Philly, riding the El train up 60th. He wasn’t saying, “Bill Clinton has systematically shut down welfare for the majority of working class Black people!” But they did want to tell us about Black people going hungry, you know?


The album shares its name with Chinua Achebe’s famous book which expressed this idea of the desire to hold onto one’s tradition in spite of colonialism. We could equate the rampant commercialization of hip-hop as a sort of colonialism that the Roots are trying to fight against, seeking allyship in Common, Mos Def and Erykah Badu. In this respect, Things Fall Apart was about integrity, but also innovation.

Scott Storch on The Making of The Roots’ “You Got Me”

Scott Woods

Things Fall Apart isn’t the first good Roots record, but it is the first inarguably good Roots record. Every other record before it had some kind of qualifier on it: straight hip-hop, East Coast, backpack, whatever. The Roots had been making good music, but the agenda on Things Fall Apart had more to do with interrogating what people were doing with their music than whether or not it was a good record.

You can hear the confrontational deconstruction in tracks like “Step Into The Realm” and “Without A Doubt,” which exists somewhere between contemporary riffing on the classic hip-hop tone, and destroying both takes at the same time. By the time Mos Def is hitting us with what may be the dopest one-word lyrical repetition at the end of “Double Trouble,” there are no more definitions left in hip-hop. Coupled with all of the genre bending on the record overall, the battles on Things Fall Apart aren’t just lyrical, they’re artistically philosophical. And the Roots won every fight on this record.

The Roots - Double Trouble

Kasey Anderson

Thought’s lyrics are less rhetorical and more personal, more detail-oriented. The subject matter endures because it’s less about, “This politician or organization is bad whereas this politician or organization is good!” and more about the concepts of suffering in general and how that suffering is minimized or marginalized or dismissed when a very specific subset of civilization is thriving. That contrast alone will, unfortunately, endure in perpetuity and because of that, again maybe unfortunately, most of Things Fall Apart runs very little risk of sounding “dated” two decades on.

The Covers

Upon the album’s release in the late winter of 1999, it arrived with five different covers. Each cover features a historical photograph meant to show the interior of human suffering – five moments frozen, and laid out in black and white. The photo which appears on most album covers circulated is a one from a riot during the Civil Rights era, where riot police chase two teenagers in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. One of the teenagers looks back at the police while in mid-stride. The other, who is most prominently featured on the cover, has on a white dress and wears a look of terror on her face.

The other four covers included images that were similarly visceral, haunting or heartbreaking. One depicts a bombed and collapsing church with a stained glass circle at the top center of what was left of the building, looming like a single eye among the rubble. On another cover is the hand of murdered mafia boss Giuseppe Masseria, taken directly after his death in 1931. Attacked while playing cards, his hand, covered in blood and jewels, was captured still holding the ace of spades. Another cover shows a close-up on the face of a crying child, taken in 1992 by photographer Peter Turnley in Baidoa, Somalia. The child sits, with two large tears trailing down each side of his face. And finally, an infant in Shanghai, screaming amidst the destruction of World War II. The photo is from 1937, taken outside of what was once Shanghai’s South Railway Station. The infant is mid-scream and no parents appear to be present in the photo.

As the ’90s were winding down, many found themselves eager to see what advances waited for humanity on the other side of the millennium. But for art director Kenny Gravillis and the Roots, the idea was to use images showing societal failures from the past. The choice of artwork reflected the songs on the album, which showed how those failures were impacting society in the present.

Kasey Anderson

Kenny Gravillis is due an enormous amount of credit here for marrying the visual content and art direction for Things Fall Apart to the sounds and concepts of the album itself. There was reportedly an original cover art concept, an illustration of the Roots and Sean Combs at the bottom of the ocean, which was discarded. My hunch is that the original cover art concept was jettisoned as the Roots’ musical and lyrical concepts for Things Fall Apart crystallized but I have no idea whether or not that’s accurate.

Marcus J. Moore

I bought, and still have, the CD cover with the baby crying in the rubble. That limited edition cover, along with the main photo that captures the riot in Bed-Stuy, perfectly encapsulates the music herein. Things Fall Apart feels shaded in black and gray hue, which also speaks to the do-or-die nature of the Roots at that time. This was their make-or-break record, and from the Mo’ Better Blues sample at the beginning to Ursula Rucker’s closing poem at the end, there’s a prevalent dark cloud over Things Fall Apart that begins with the cover art. Though the music was relevant in 1999 when the album was released, I think the covers and the music are even more relevant in today’s bleak political landscape. The world is in peril, and the images selected for the LP still hold weight today. After three moderately successful LPs, Things Fall Apart was the moment when fight-or-flight kicked in for [the Roots]. With their careers on the line, things could’ve gone very well for them (which they ultimately did), or they could’ve gone the other way and completely fallen apart.

The Release

Things Fall Apart went gold only two months after its release, and the album catapulted the Roots towards the mainstream airplay and success that had largely evaded their prior efforts. More importantly, though, the album defined the Roots as a band who operated best when experimenting with the many pieces of ideas, and sliding them together in a way that might seem haphazard for other groups. They made the chaos look like calm.

In some ways, the moment was ripe for their commercial success, and the success of the Soulquarians overall. With Tribe breaking up and the Native Tongues becoming a point of nostalgia, rap and soul music needed a focused collective who were linking hands to fight for similar (but evolved) messaging within the mainstream. There was still a hunger for conscious and political content to lean against the other things happening in the hip-hop mainstream, where even the most street rappers were releasing glossy singles, with a clear eye on the charts. The Roots didn’t necessarily find themselves on Things Fall Apart, but it was the album where they chose to trust themselves and the path that their music could make. Its run of mainstream success may seem surprising in retrospect, but the times were hungry for the band to take a leap.

Mathea Morais

I love Questlove on this album. You can hear the challenge he set for himself by working alongside the likes of D’Angelo and J Dilla and Premier. Before Things Fall Apart Questlove was like that kid in school who was so smart he never had to try very hard but still did better than everyone else. But then he found himself in the honors class surrounded for the first time by kids who were as smart or smarter than him. He not only set out to push himself into new territory, he set out to bring out the best from the best around him. From speeding up Q-Tip’s signature boom-boom-clack beat on tracks like “Adrenaline” with live drums, to honoring true mixing and scratching skills on “The Next Movement.”

The Roots - Adrenaline!

Marcus J. Moore

Things Fall Apart doesn’t feel like a hip-hop album to me. Surely it is, since Black Thought, Malik B., Mos Def and Beanie Siegel turned in some of the best rhymes of their lives, but sonically, the beats seemed to swirl on an offbeat axis before tunneling straight into your heart. On “Double Trouble,” for instance, Questlove’s drums feel distant and the chimes feel recorded in some faraway place. That’s before the percussion locks into a hypnotic groove on which Thought and Mos go back and forth on some old-school 1980s tip – just two dope boys and a mic, that sort of thing. I’ve always had wonky tastes in music, so I always appreciated “Table of Contents,” where the backing track is all lopsided and messy, and on the second half of the song, Malik – instead of doing adlibs here and there – supplants it by re-rapping the entire verse in a softer tone behind his own lead vocals. Things Fall Apart succeeds through moments like these; it’s an album of immense nuance, and these details are what keep me coming back to the record 20 years later. I’ve always equated it to what the Beatles did on Sgt. Pepper’s, how they took all these unusual measures to make the album feel abnormal.

Itiola Jones

Things Fall Apart works on different textures: sonically [with] Questlove incorprating his new skills of “dirty” drum playing and lyrically, [with] Black Thought and Mos Def going bar-for-bar on “Double Trouble,” as well as bringing together different artists to create a sound unique to the album.

If the ominous and cloudy tone of Things Fall Apart was a warning that something bad could be coming, the early 2000s cashed in on that promise.

The Aftermath

In the immediate aftermath of the album’s success, the Soulquarians were propelled into the year 2000 with their run of stellar releases. D’Angelo’s Voodoo was a hit, and Questlove spent most of the year touring with D’Angelo’s band. By the time the Roots settled back down to record Phrenology in 2002, the landscape had changed: Common had gone electronic, and Dilla, forever shifting, was experimenting with new sounds. Phrenology had heavier expectations attached to it than any Roots album ever had, with a newer, wider audience expecting the group to cash in on their newfound energy. But the times had also changed. If the ominous and cloudy tone of Things Fall Apart was a warning that something bad could be coming, the early 2000s cashed in on that promise. Phrenology was a post-9/11 album that saw the Roots splitting off entirely from the darker tones of Things Fall Apart and found them falling into louder, funkier arrangements. It was an album made by people who already did the work of showing the worst parts of society’s failures, trying to aim at something else. After the album, personnel shifted: Malik B and Rahzel left the group shortly after Phrenology. The Soulquarians collaborated in quieter ways. Dilla died in 2006 and starting with 2008’s Rising Down, the Roots albums got even darker and more contemplative.

Things Fall Apart clocks in at nearly 80 minutes. It is dense in time, messaging, musical ambition and lyrical brilliance. But it doesn’t resolve itself. An album this zoomed out and focused on the world seems like it might, at the end, offer some grand hope for an exit strategy, or a way to a better place. But it doesn’t. It suffocates, right up until the very end.

The Roots never slowed down their aims or ambitions, particularly not around unraveling the messiness of a country’s political movement. But because they have been so committed to reinvention, it seems especially worthwhile to remember how Things Fall Apart played a role in kickstarting a sound, an ambition and a spirit that still resonates – an ode to how a group can create with their backs against a wall.

Itiola Jones

With the current trajectory of hip-hop, I worry music listeners of my generation may not uphold the legacy of this album’s impact. As the years pass by, the Roots may just be relegated to the band on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, but I believe in history and the keepers of history that Things Fall Apart will be an album revered for future generations to come. That being said, one could make the argument that Things Fall Apart is a blueprint to making a classic album – off-kilter breakbeats, unpredictable, but delightful features, warbling drums loops – which all translate to an artist willing to take huge leaps and reinvent themselves again and again.

Scott Woods

You could sell Things Fall Apart today with different song titles, not just because it’s still good but because it’s still necessary. Artists and producers took all the wrong lessons from this album and its camp. They took the idea of marrying soul sensibilities with hip-hop braggadocio, but not the musicianship. They took the success of an earnest but not gangsta crew and turned it into sip music. None of this is the fault of Things Fall Apart. It just means audiences need [to be] reintroduced to it now and again with new eyes, like getting your shots every few years to inoculate you against lazy music.

Mathea Morais

I don’t think for a minute that Mos Def needed Things Fall Apart to exist in order to create Black on Both Sides, but I can only imagine the confidence it gave folks over at Priority Records.


I see its influence in Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly album cover. It depicts a group of black men celebrating in front of the White House, wearing scars and burns on their skin. This black and white image evokes the same type of emotions (and controversy) as the various Things Fall Apart album covers.

Tirhakah Love

Beanie Sigel who debuted on “Adrenaline” and Eve who debuted on “You Got Me,” both have careers now. They all feeding their families now. That’s a beautiful thing to me. We can also think conceptually, like, Native Tongues and Soulquarians made the idea of a “supergroup” feel possible. Those groups sorta came around organically and vibed off each other somethin’ heavy. The legacy of that seamlessness starts with Things Fall Apart. It’s amazing they lasted as long as they did because it’s really hard to manage egos with such consistency. But for a while there it just seemed like they could all eat off the music they made in Electric Lady forever. And in some ways, they kinda have.

Header image © Paul Natkin/WireImage/Getty Images

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