…the new Roots record. By FAR their best in years. I haven’t loved any of their last few records, but this new one rules. Get it. Review below.
[Def Jam; 2008]
It's gotten to the point where I can't even imagine the Roots being soft anymore. Not to be dismissive of their first few albums, which were thoughtful without being mushy or maudlin, but their three recent records-- the underrated/overhated alleged-sellout The Tipping Point, the Def Jam-released tightly knit return to rawness Game Theory, and now Rising Down-- are so singularly focused on a kind of distilled, uninhibited force that it's now difficult to think of the Roots as anything but intelligently aggressive firebrands.
You don't throw on these albums if you want to chill out, and Rising Down does more than any of them to express, precisely and without compromise, a specifically African-American but increasingly universal strain of anxiety and frustration. A lot of Rising Down's urgency and immediacy owes to the massive guest roster. The Roots' Philly core of affiliates-- vets Dice Raw, Peedi Peedi, and Truck North, former member Malik B., and relative newcomer/search engine nightmare P.O.R.N.-- appear on more than half the record's songs, and they help give the record a sense of a communal strength in numbers; their appearances on vicious throwdown "Get Busy" (with the some deft cuts from Philly's legendary DJ Jazzy Jeff) and a stretch of tracks in the middle ("I Will Not Apologize", "I Can't Help It", and "Singing Man") feel like the spiritual and lyrical core of the album.
The guests from outside Philly work just as well: Talib Kweli spits with an atypically growly delivery on the anti-defeatist anthem "Lost Desire", Common displays glimpses of his late-1990s shine ruminating over tour fatigue on "The Show", Wale kills it with some so-corny-they're-great metaphors ("good rappers ain't eatin', they Olsen twinnin'") on "Rising Up", and Saigon's final verse on "Criminal" is the fierce peak of a three-MC slow lyrical burn. And while Styles P's turn on the title track works well enough (it's something to hear the dude behind "Good Times [I Get High]" go after the pharmaceutical industry), Mos Def's verse-- the first one on the whole record-- is one of the best he's ever done, and probably the best guest spot on Rising Down: "Identities in crisis and conflict diamonds/ Blindin', staring at lights till they cryin'/ Bone gristle popping from continuous grindin'."
But despite the massive ensemble cast, Black Thought is still the core of the record and the well-worn accusations of him being anti-charismatic feel largely false here. Most of his great moments come on tracks which feature a lot of other MCs' great moments, and after getting overshadowed on "Rising Down" (can any MC make the subject of global warming into a dope lyric?) he comes out swinging for the rest of the record. On "Singing Man", even with P.O.R.N. portraying himself as a vividly realized school shooter and Truck North putting together a disturbingly evocative characterization of a suicide bomber, Black Thought's depiction of an African child soldier justifying his violence ("13 year-old killer, he look 35/ He changed his name to Little No Man Survive") is both sharply written and unsettling. His delivery is a bit more varied than you might expect, too, particularly when he's rapping about getting underpaid like he's got a clenched jaw in "I Will Not Apologize" or sweating his way through a pills-and-stress panic attack on "I Can't Help It". And when he's turned loose on a hookless lyrical exhibition, Black Thought is nearly unstoppable; it's scary the way he blazes through the one-take assault of "75 Bars (Black's Reconstruction)", throwing out endless Big Daddy Kane-level proclamations of untouchability ("My hustle is long, my muscle is strong, my man put the paper in the duffel I'm gone/ Y'all still a light year from the level I'm on/ Just a pawn stepping right into the head of the storm"). The abrupt way it ends, it sounds like he could've gone on full throttle for another two hundred bars if someone hadn't taken a cleaver to the tape reel.
A revamped production style accompanies the deeper, darker lyrical tone, taking the aesthetic of Game Theory to its grimiest conclusion. Most of Kamal's keyboard work here isn't with the archetypal Fender Rhodes of Roots albums past; he's using a number of grimy analog synths that snarl and spit and hiss, the kind you hear in dead prez's "Hip Hop" or Outkast's "Stanklove" (or the J.B.'s' "Blow Your Head", for that matter). That racket combining with ?uestlove's fierce, crisp percussion makes for some diabolical rhythmic low-end, and since it dominates Rising Down's personality it gives the album the feeling of being this bionic monstrosity that just so happens to have a lot of headknock to it.
There are a couple of exceptions, like the guitar-driven midtempo Fela pastiche of "I Will Not Apologize" and the unexpected country-blues tinge to "Criminal", but they're rare breathers in an album that otherwise closes in on you. Only when the triumphant, old-school Roots return on the demi-go-go of "Rising Up" does it feel like the weight's been lifted, and even then something about it-- the endless Oprah/Travolta namedrop hook, the mawkish Chrisette Michele vocal about a crying b-girl, the overly tidy-sounding keyboards-- seems a bit out of place. (Maybe not as out-of-place as the now-infamous and super-creepy Patrick Stump collab "Birthday Girl", however; excising that disaster singlehandedly saved the album's character.) Rising Down isn't always an easy listen, but it's an exciting one, and its abrasiveness never gets in the way of a good throw-your-hands-up beat or a well-crafted lyric.
If you've been paying any damn attention to the world around you, most of Rising Down's messages ring familiar, and frequently true: This is an album that tells you the entertainment industry is turning into a coon show, the climate (both environmental and cultural) is getting fucked up, and broke people are still struggling. But this record states these ideas with respect to the notion that you know them already, and puts all the revelation and subtext into its unyielding sound. You could call it preaching to the converted, but it also feels like a reminder to the lapsed, less a wake-up call than a shot of renewed adrenaline.
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