Being a fan of the Roots is like watching your best friend kick his heroin addiction.
I should probably explain what I mean by that.
The Roots have been long time musical friends of mine. We were tight. Organix was the second hip-hop record I ever owned (I’m not counting Jock Jams, for the record) and we’ve been close for a long time through thick and thin. At first, everything was great with my Philly best friends. We rode bikes, played stickball and had an all around good time (Organix, Do You Want More?!!!??!, Things Fall Apart). But a few years later, after we were in high school, the Roots kind of started hanging out with the wrong crowd (greedy record execs, MTV). And I wanted to say something at the time, but they told me they were fine (“The Seed 2.0,” “Sacrifice”) and I desperately wanted to believe them because they were so important to me.
And then they hit rock bottom with their release of The Tipping Point. They dropped out of school and started turning tricks for Geffen Records.
And when they showed up on my doorstep a few years later, “six months sober” chip in hand (Game Theory) and a new sponsor (Jay-Z and Def Jam), I wanted to believe them, but the memories of the bad times were still too fresh. I didn’t want to dig out my old LP’s and start bobbing along with ?uestlove’s (Ahmir Thompson) hypnotic afro if they were just going to relapse. But now I’m just so happy to have them back.
Combining some jazz and soul influences that harken back to their very first records, Rising Down hits the listener with the pronounced and energetic instrumentation so sorely lacking on The Tipping Point, along with electronic studio effects, and solid rhymes from MC, Black Thought (Tariq Trotter). The record, their 10th, is a far cry from the “organic hip-hop jazz” of Do You Want More?!!!??!, but it takes the drums, bass, and keyboards that made the first records so special and mixes them with a variety of synth effects, horns, and different singers to give the songs rich sound and texture. It’s a calculably edgy record and most of the songs seem better suited for the dance floor than a lazy afternoon spent toking on the sofa. But even still, the Roots manage to cover everything from global warming in the flowy “Rising Down,” to the conditions of ghettos in the refreshingly unique “Criminal,” to the Virginia Tech shooting in the chilling “Singing Man,” told from the perspective of the shooter right before he goes on his rampage. Black Thought’s rhymes aren’t as clever or ambitious as they used to be, but they still have unique ability to roll over ?uestlove’s drum beats in way that makes you want to tap your toes. Many of the tracks feature a small lyrical army. Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Common, the Jazzyfatnastees’ Mercedes Martinez, one-time band member Malik B., Truck North and Rice Daw round out an incomplete list. “Birthday Girl,” a bonus track available on the iTunes version of the album, features Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump. Half ear candy, half confessional about a recently “of age” groupie, it might be the one of the most original and yet radio friendly hip-hop tracks since the Roots started making music.
Perhaps most interesting, Rising Down features several phone conversations slyly recorded by ?uestlove in 1994, as tensions between the group and the label swelled surrounding DYWM?!!!?!. In one, Black Thought explodes against his label so hard they were almost dropped before the album was ever finished. It’s the perfect touch to the band’s tenth release, and even better, the liner notes come complete with ?uestlove’s musings on each song, including Black Thought’s meltdown, since dubbed “the North Carolina incident.” Also making an appearance is a low fidelity recording of a young Black Thought’s freestyles, set to the taps of what I assume is a young ?uestlove’s drumsticks and practice pad — his afro not yet impressive enough to put the entire 1970’s to shame, as it does now.
While Rising Down didn’t drop my jaw the way Organix did, it’s a solid record, exceptionally unique and with a fantastic supporting cast. My friends The Roots have changed a lot, and it hasn’t always been for the better. But that’s music, I suppose. That’s life. And no artist should ever have to apologize for taking a risk or trying something new. Except for Fred Durst. He owes everyone two.
So give Rising Down a listen to hear the old school meet the new school. And while I would have been ecstatic if the Roots had simply re-recorded “Distortion to Static” and played it on a loop for 50 minutes, Rising Down reminds me of why I fell in love with the Legendary Roots Crew in the first place. As Black Thought puts it, “been down but now I’m back up.”
My old friends are back. And I’m smiling ear to ear while I bob my head.

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