It must be nice to color outside the lines all the time. That's just what the Roots have done in their 15 years or so on the global musical radar. Sales are no longer a factor, since they've never delivered a platinum album and have only gone gold twice; they only have themselves to compete with. By maintaining an exhaustive tour schedule, they could be content with the sheer novelty of being hip-hop's best live act. Instead, the band in the land of the unseen hand that holds trouble opt to stand on their tenability with a fresh oxymoronically-titled 10th album, Rising Down.
Rising Down and Coming Up
The album begins with one of the most unusual intros ever. An angry argument via telephone ensues amongst Black Thought, ?uestlove and management over creative differences that show that even their earliest steps toward recognition and a modicum of commercial success were not without pain. Indeed, it's their unwillingness to bend to mainstream expectations that have lent them "legendary" status with virtually no airplay and minor chart position.
For fans and true school rap aficionados, however, Rising Down accomplishes an interesting feat in The Roots discography. It is arguably the most thoroughly listenable album since Things Fall Apart, yet effusively lighter than Game Theory, but with the equally hard-hitting lyrical content of the latter. The title track features a low-key, but welcome opening guest spot from Mos Def after which Black Thought deftly delivers the lines "between the greenhouse gases and the earth spinnin' off it's axis/got mother nature doin' backflips."
Directly following is the delightful "Get Busy," a hard bass, drum and synth-driven boast on lyrical prowess and reppin' the Illadelph. An unexpected guest spot by D.J. Jazzy Jeff cuttin' and scratchin' brings the old-school flavor.
Evolution of an Emcee
Black Thought's teen freestyle on "@15" is nicer than most radio rappers' full songs at age 30. It's a very appropriate lead into "75 Bars" where the prolific emcee rips a hook-less rant over a sparse snare and an ill tuba bass line. He pierces with the lines "When I spit it's something like a psychology exam/If you stood where I stand you could probably understand/how that mic feelin' like a million dollars in my hand." Moments like this challenge critics' claim that BT lacks the personality to lead his band; he simply adheres to a strict focus on lyricism and a strong aversion to buffoonery.
The aptly titled "I Will Not Apologize" featuring Talib Kweli, p.o.r.n. and Dice Raw is a tribute to the late Fela Kuti where each rapper skillfully modifies his flow to fit the funky world-beat rhythm. The only disappointment here is that Talib Kweli simply sings the hook instead of contributing a verse. He compensates with an angry verse on "Lost Desire," where he addresses corrupt power by spitting about "coming for the heads of the bosses."
Diary of a Mad Band
While Rising Down is in no way a concept album, its title does illustrate the madness of the strife and social dissidence that pervade the content. "Rising Up" is an interesting juxtaposition of jazz over a pseudo go-go beat, and one of the brightest spots over the album. It is perhaps the strongest personification of Rising Down -- Chrisette Michelle's melancholic vocals meet guest rapper Wale's hopeful rhymes. "Singing Man" disturbingly humanizes killers from suicide bombers to school shooters with a lilting hook. And thematically connected, though sonically discordant, is the Patrick Stump-assisted "Birthday Girl." Offered as an iTunes bonus track, but missing from the album, it is a cheerful sounding, yet unsettling composition about men taking notice of sexually precocious teens who are clearly influenced by the reality-show culture that caters to them. Just call it The Roots Gone Wild.
'Rising Down' - a Unique Listening Experience
On the production and guest spots, The Roots kept it in the family by utilizing reliable talents that are known and respected by their core fan base. The album closes with Black Thought doing a freestyle over the beat to "Distortion to Static" from Do You Want More, following more conversation from ?uestlove on the band's future. It makes for a unique listening experience to wonder what happens behind the scenes and what will happen next. Only time will tell. I don't think that hip-hop is dead, but it's fighting for its life and Rising Down is the defibrillator.Outstanding Songs on Rising Down
- "Rising Down"
- "Rising Up"
- "Get Busy"
- "75 Bars (Black's Reconstruction)"
- "Lost Desire"