A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory vs. The Roots’ Things Fall Apart. Which Is Better?

One year ago, Ambrosia For Heads launched a debate among its readers seeking to answer one of Hip-Hop’s most hotly-contested questions: who is the greatest MC of all time? “Finding The GOAT MC” lasted between September 2014 and May 2015, engaging millions of readers and ultimately producing its winner, as determined by hundreds of thousands of voters. Now, “Finding The GOAT” returns to ask a new question: what is the greatest of all time Hip-Hop album?

“Finding The GOAT Album” will consider 120 albums from three individual eras (40 in each), with options for wild card and write-in candidates. You and your vote will decide which album goes forward, and which one leaves the conversation. While there will no doubt be conversation between family and friends (virtual and real), only votes cast in the voting tool below will be counted, so use the power of your click.

The next two albums to battle are deep, defining moments in two legendary crews’ discographies. At the top of the 1990s, A Tribe Called Quest pivoted, and made an album in The Low End Theory that transcended them from ones to watch, to the top of Hip-Hop’s creative watch-tower. Conversely, at the end of the decade, The Roots’ fourth album, Things Fall Apart brought the Hip-Hop album back together, with theme, cohesion, and phenomenal interplay. Synergy is a key overlapping theme of both of these platinum works, which helped mold the culture well into the 2010s. Which is the supreme force? (Click on one then click “vote”).

A Tribe Called Quest Low End Theory

The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest

While 1990’s People’s Instinctive Travels & Paths Of Rhythm is a stellar album, A Tribe Called Quest hit their stride on 1991’s The Low End Theory. The Jazz-inspired LP would pocket a sound that A.T.C.Q. (now a trio, less Jarobi and with a significantly increased role for Phife) completely brewed up themselves—big on samples, wisdom, and an overall feel that melted just like “Butter.” The strong qualities of the group’s debut dispersed into beautiful arrangements, both vocal and musical—as heard immediately in single “Check The Rhime.” With one of the many featured Tip-and-Phife routines at center, the group casually waxed their history into a game-changing horn, bass, and drum conconction. That bass would be a defining feature of The Low End Theory—but not in the same way of the group’s Rap peers. With the acclaimed Ron Carter involved with the album, songs like “Buggin’ Out,” “Skypager,” and “Jazz (We’ve Got)” were as inspired by Charles Mingus as they were Afrika Bambaataa. However, in an era where many Hip-Hop acts were drawing on the glory days of Jazz, Quest was intent on never softening or stylizing their rhyme style. Album closer “Scenario” may be the group’s most aggressive mic display, with Phife aiming for the eyes, quite literally.

For a group who would record together for less than a decade, The Low End Theory is a burden of proof as to why Tribe may be Hip-Hop’s greatest. This album is almost entirely self-contained, in terms of production, and lyrics. There are guests, but Phife, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and The Abstract found their synergy on this effort. This album demonstrated how A.T.C.Q. could organically shape Hip-Hop, seemingly in their own vacuum. As De La Soul, Queen Latifah, and Black Sheep made leaps and bounds, the Native Tongues movement was at full throttle, at least publicly. The Low End Theory is an album that stretched to reach many generations, and non-Rap fans, all with a message, style, and skill-set that Hip-Hop purists could certify. At a time when the Hip-Hop generation was showing itself to the mainstream as a legitimate, culture-driven force of thought, creativity, and humanity, The Low End Theory was a brilliant illustration. Songs like “Excursions,” “Check The Rhime,” and “Butter” are proof the great albums can age beautifully. The Low End Theory is high-brow music, and another hallmark effort that so many artists dream of replicating in their own catalogs.

Album Number: 2
Released: September 24, 1991
Label: Jive/RCA Records
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): #45 (certified gold, February 1992; certified platinum, February 1995)
Song Guests: Leaders Of The New School (Busta Rhymes, Charlie Brown & Dinco D) Diamond D, Lord Jamar, Sadat X, Ron Carter, Vinia Mojica
Song Producers: (self), Skeff Anslem


Things Fall Apart by The Roots

After 10 years of working together, Questlove and Black Thought watched their Roots blossom in a big way on 1999’s Things Fall Apart. By the fourth album, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s Hip-Hop band was no longer a well-kept secret. Instead, in an era where people were seeking alternatives to the flash bulbs, fabricated characters, and distracting elements in Rap, the Illadelph crew brought it home. Although the Grammy Award-winning album raised the bar in the tightness the band found in the studio, the improvisation was still at play. “Adrenaline!” married a jam session with a cypher, as several distinct sides of Philly Rap came together—in a dazzling hot-potato microphone display from Thought, Beanie Sigel, and Dice Raw. While MC upstaging, beatboxing, and scratching lights the path of Things Fall Apart, it is a deeply thematic LP. Approaching Y2K, “The Next Movement” forecast the new world order. Black Thought was able to write lines, not about computers crashing and markets declining, but rather anticipate unrest in the ghettos, a social paradigm shift, and a feeling of overall unease. Smash single “You Got Me” fit snugly into this deck. The song looked at the challenges of love in modern times, and established loyalty in the age of the player. Black Thought and Erykah Badu played characters, that made sense to the listener—whether dealing with distance by incarceration, or simple geography. Hip-Hop is the bond that held the world, as The Roots saw it, together. “Act Too (The Love Of My Life)” extended the vibes of much of the crew’s first three albums, into their platinum juggernaut.

The Roots challenged many conventions by Things Fall Apart. At a time when Hip-Hop loved broad lines, the crew would welcome former members (Dice, Scott Storch) back to play key elements of the album. In an era when Hip-Hop was often perceived as “gangsta” or “conscious,” the band did not bat an eye to bring Eve or Beans into their symphony, just as much as Common or Mos Def. At a time when the new millennium was inevitable, this album brought Wild Style, Schoolly D, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince with it, as time capsules. Sampling was not necessary, as it was clear that Kamal Gray, Hub Hubbard, Scratch, Malik B, Rahzel, Questlove, and Tariq could channel anything they wanted to, with their own hands and minds. This made Things Fall Apart incredibly cohesive, and a deep lean-back experience at a time when Rap albums seemed to rely on the CD-skip button too heavily. The Roots shifted to make the best label album they could, as a rising force in ’90s Hip-Hop. Along the way, they did not compromise who they were, musically or vocally, playing to the club just as much as the arena. Of The Roots’ “first movement,” Things Fall Apart is widely considered their finest, and most cohesive moment. This is the album that earned the crew a spot on television today, and proved that the hardest working band in the last 20 years will never have difficulty finding a stage, or a crowded studio.

Album Number: 4
Released: February 23, 1999
Label: MCA Records
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): #4 (certified gold, April 1999; certified platinum, April 2013)
Song Guests: Mos Def, Beanie Sigel, Common, Erykah Badu, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Eve, Dice Raw, Ursula Rucker, Jazzyfatnastees (Tracy Moore & Mercedes Martinez), Lady B, Bob Power
Song Producers: (self), J Dilla, The Grand Wizzards (Questlove, Black Thought, Anthony Tidd, Mel “Chaos” Lewis, James Poyser, Kelo & Richard Nichols), Scott Stotch, Kelo, Rahzel

So what’s the better album? Make sure you vote above.

Related: Ambrosia For Heads’ Finding The GOAT: The Albums