Since forming in Philadelphia 25 years ago (yes, it really has been that long), the Roots have become one of the most innovative, progressive, and influential acts in the history of hip-hop. Originally coming up in age where artists like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul helped define what the left-of-center end of the genre was capable of, the group went on to find a sound that would represent its own notion of Illadelph. Most noted at first for embracing live instrumentation and jazz tropes, they turned every show and production into a full-band affair. The first Roots record was released in 1993, and since then, they’ve gone on to make nine more, consistently proving that while many acts begin to sputter and falter with age, their creative engines are still running at full steam.
Over the last two decades, there hasn’t been a huge amount of constancy in the band — the only members to have stayed in the lineup since the beginning are the same two who founded it, emcee Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought, and drummer Amir Thompson, aka Questlove. Aside from the duo, the cast of the Roots has been ever-evolving, which could also help account for why the music itself never goes stale. These days, Thompson is regarded as one of the best drummers and producers in the business, and the band as a whole has a nice high-profile day job with Jimmy Fallon. But it hasn’t caused them to dial things back at all: They continue to tour, run their record label, okayplayer, throw annual festivals in their hometown, and write and record envelope-pushing new music. In fact, after all this time, they released one of their finest albums to date just last year.
When it comes to an act this diverse, one that has broken so much ground and taken so many chances along the way, ranking their albums is a difficult task indeed. (Although you will most likely hear us say that for every artist we include in this recurring feature.) For the purposes of this exercise, we’re leaving out the collaborative projects the Roots count among their discography — such as the excellent Wake Up! with John Legend — and focusing on their 10 full-length studio releases solely under the Roots moniker. I’m sure you might have a different opinion about where some of these picks should fall, but just remember, in my mind, every one of these albums is a winner. The Countdown starts here; the arguments start in the comments.