In the months leading up to The Roots eighth studio album Rising Down the Illadelph band had the internet going nuts with gritty Rik Cordero-directed music videos depicting Black Thought kidnapping whitey and Dice Raw scaring white collar workers while making copies, proving that The Roots truly were coming land, sea, and air, n***a!
It was as though everything raw and confrontational from Game Theory was leaking down to feed into the next monstrous Roots record. Then the “Birthday Girl” video featuring Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy came along threatening to pansy up our preconceptions. The album seemed doomed, until merely weeks before its release, “Birthday Girl” was dropped from the album and bumped to iTunes.
?uestlove said the friendly pop song did not fit the motif of Rising Down, a title taken from the William T. Vollmann book Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means. As such, this record follows the bleakness of its predecessor, with violent percussion, sci-fi synths and a general austerity in texture. It begins with a 1994 conference call, involving Amir “?uestlove” Thompson in a shouting match with record executives. From there we begin “Rising Down,” a soul groove conjuring the ghosts of Funkadelic fueled by the steady reverb of a generator hum. It's a quiet storm, eerily creeping across the horizon towards the blistering drums of “Get Busy”, an assault that breaks in like a stick up.
The black clouds you might notice blanketing the atmosphere is The Roots locking into a comfort zone, the result of a sonic pummeling of garbage-pail percussion, sharp and raw, sometimes accompanied with clean outros: “I Can’t Help It” has a delicious breakdown as the drums crunch like a mouthful of cereal, no milk. Black Thought blacks out into a hypnotized neurosis of urgent messages and confrontational braggadoccio on “75 Bars (Black's Reconstruction)”, preluded by a dubbed recording of Thought at age 15 freestyling with a confident swagger. The reconstruction is an animal in the booth, an unapologetic man who's in your girl, in your face and in the battlefield. Critiques of The Roots often involve disappointment in Black Thought's ability to hold listener attention through a long player, but naysayers should be put to rest after back to back stellar performances like this. I cannot even select a quote that summarizes Thought's rabid bite, but here goes: “You better look alive, because the n***as outside looking desperate again, n***a. And the blunts and liquor yell at my lungs and liver, the asthmatic, drug addict I function with it… See the legendary fall? I ain't heard of that. Ya'll n***as is off the wall like Arsenio Hall. I'ma put you right back where the dirt is at.”
Thought is not alone in Rising Down. Mos Def is the first voice on the album, earning his lead-off hitter position by sounding like he enjoys rapping for the first time since his debut. Truck North and P.O.R.N. have monikers that made me cringe when I first saw the tracklisting, but their frequent contributions are merited. (The word is these two were on nearly every song at one point, doing for Rising Down what Ghostface and Cappadonna did for Only Built For Cuban Linx. Likewise, I could not be more relieved to see Dice Raw back in Eat-A-Rapper-For-Breakfast mode as he murders “Get Busy” with lines like “I crack up when a rapper gets slapped up.”
Admittedly, I don't hear the political slant ?uestlove spoke of prior to the release, but it hardly seems relevant; The Roots remain valuable shepherds leading us away from glitzy pop and coke rap. For bearing such a heavy weight for a decade plus, The Roots earn the celebration of album closer “Rising Up”, where they jam out an Incredible Bongo Band-esque soul burner to swipe away the tears of a crying b-girl in the whirlwind of a headspin.