Things Fall Apart, the fourth studio album by The Roots, was a sign of the times when it was released in 1999. The artwork for Things Fall Apart reflected the world’s greatest turmoils—famine, violence, discrimination, and fear—through images that came to represent these negative aspects of society from years past.

Five images for five limited edition album covers aligned the LP’s title with the theme of “visual failure in society.” A burned church, a scene from a riot in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, the hand of murdered mafia boss Giuseppe Masseria, a crying child, and an infant screaming amongst destruction in Shanghai after Japan’s World War II attack are the photos art director Kenny Gravillis and The Roots used to display humanity in its darkest hours. 

Gravillis' contribution to Things Fall Apart is just one gem in his treasure chest of a résumé (for The Roots, he also art directed the covers for UndunHow I Got Over, Rising Down, and Game Theory). The art director spent five years at Def Jam's The Drawing Board and then went onto become the creative director of the Black Music Division at MCA Records. Gravillis' impressive credentials include designing Mary J. Blige's albums Share My World and Mary, Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, and art for Babyface, Usher, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, and Third Eye Blind. Today, he creates promotional materials for movies under his company Gravillis, Inc.

Back when Gravillis was working on the cover for Things Fall Apart in 1999, a new year of prosperity was underway (i.e. the introduction of the euro and Bill Gates' personal wealth exceeded 100 billion), yet there were still major global issues that eerily echoed the disasters of the past (nail bomb explosions in the Brixton area of London, fatal flash floods in Las Vegas). 

Had The Roots gone with the original concept for the cover (an illustration of The Roots and Sean “Diddy” Combs jettisoned at the bottom of the ocean), the message and public response would have been undoubtedly much different. Needless to say, the shock value of Things Fall Apart grew The Roots’ reputation for raising public awareness in both their music and on their album covers. Gravillis shared his thoughts on the five covers with us, adding to the narrative of Things Fall Apart on its 15-year anniversary.  

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"Things Fall Apart" Art Director Kenny Gravillis Tells the Stories Behind The Roots' 5 Album Covers