We’re a little obsessed with the idea of love here in Philadelphia, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Maybe it’s iconic status of Robert Indiana’s pop art sculpture on permanent display downtown, maybe it’s embedded in the very DNA of our name. And maybe, just maybe, it’s the amount of pop music we’ve produced over the decades, testifying to eternal devotion in its various forms. Every day leading up to Valentine’s Day this year, The Key is recapping 14 songs that scream “love” just as strongly as they scream “Philly.” The Essential Love Songs of Philadelphia begins with “Act Too (The Love of My Life)” from The Roots’ 1999 album Things Fall Apart.
We commonly think of love songs as celebrations of person-to-person love, which is sort of a limiting view. Sure, you could argue that this is the only form of love that can truly be reciprocal, but it is hardly the only form of love that is important. We can love places, we can love ideas, we can love art forms that motivate us and inspire us and push us to be better humans. And that’s the sort of love that comes into play on The Roots’ “Act Too (Love of My Life),” a stand-out song from their breakout album, 1999’s Things Fall Apart.
Over an expanse of five dreamlike minutes — loops of steady trumpet drones, lilting flute melodies, suave wah-wah guitar, and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s dulcet but determined drumming — MC Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter opens the scene from the stage as he’s about to break into a rhyme, a setting lifted and expounded upon a few years later by Eminem in “Lose Yourself.” In that time-frozen moment, Thought stares “with my eyes closed and dove / Into the deep cosmos.” What thoughts are going through his head? Questions of how he got where he got, questions of what helped him along the way; not just helped, what guided him, what made his ascent possible on the most basic level of existance.
Learning the ropes of ghetto survival
Peeping out the situation I had to slide through
Had to watch my back, my front, plus my sides too
When it came to getting mine I ain’t trying to argue
Sometimes I wouldn’ta made it if it wasn’t for you
Hip-hop, you the love of my life and that’s true
At the time, The Roots kept an air of mystique about themselves, even as Questlove became known for his essaywhuman liner notes breaking down each album in precision detail. Only later, in recent interviews where Thought grew comfortable being candid about his young life, did we learn how real this verse was; how Thought’s father was murdered while he was still an infant, how his mother was killed in his teenage years after becoming addicted to crack-cocaine, how he was raised by family members and had to find his way on a path that was not easy. Music, however, was his constant companion: music led him to schooling at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, which led him to Quest, which led to The Roots.
In a companion verse, Common — still a Chicago MC on the rise at that point, and not the celebrity his is today — worries that hip-hop won’t necessarily be there to fill the same role for the next generation of youth, using lyrical puzzles and clever references to take shots at video director Hype Williams and producer / rapper / entrepreneur Puff Daddy (and make a dubious dig at Lauryn Hill’s stepping back from the spotlight when motherhood came calling, possibly explained by using Lauryn as a metaphor for the earlier “classic” era of rap music). In a way, Common comes across like someone afraid of seeing an art form evolve and ascend, someone worried about the future of his specific version of it (“Peace to us collectively, live and direct / when we perform It’s just coffee shop chicks and White dudes.”) — but ultimately, he’s doing it because of the affect that version can have on its devotees. He’s doing it from a place of love.
And as Thought returns to ride the stellar, spectral beat into the cosmos, we know that this music will always be there — it will always have a place, it will always be a beacon, it will always have an unparalleled ability to take us to the to the to the top.
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