Friday, May 2, 2008

review: The Roots - "Rising Down"

Here's my review of The Roots' latest (which, I'd just like to add, I rated the exact same as Pitchfork — crazy!):


“Yesterday I saw a big girl crying/I walked up and asked ‘What’s wrong?’/She told me that the radio’s been playing the same song all day long/So I told her ‘I’ve got something you’ve been waiting for…’”

So says “Rising Up,” the first single from The Roots tenth studio album Rising Down. The beats are steady, and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter’s flows are as fluid and seamless as ever. But the Philly hip-hop group, whose original lineup was formed over 20 years ago, doesn’t need to prove their musical worth.

Though the group always pushes the envelope with their sound, what’s much more important here is their message. The political nature of Rising Down is visible beyond the music. Its name comes from William T. Vollmann's 3,300 page treatise on violence titled “Rising Up and Rising Down,” and the release date falls on the 16th anniversary of the Los Angeles Rodney King riots.

The album was supposed to be headlined by the track “Birthday Girl,” an “easy pop song” with a chorus sung by Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy. Instead, the track was turned into an exclusive iTunes release, and I’m glad — it’s a great song, but would have been utterly out of place on this release.

Instead, “Rising Down” is a starkly real portrait of a Philadelphia where drugs, guns and a crime culture are pushing the murder rate higher than one a day and the mindset that its created.

“Criminal,” a track dedicated to Sean Bell, is a reflection on the streets and unjust persecution. Bell was shot and killed by New York Police Department plainclothes detectives in 2006 outside a Queens strip club. The four officers, who fired a combined 50 rounds at the unarmed man, were acquitted of all charges last Friday.

There are some powerhouse guest appearances, Common, Talib Kweli and Mos Def included. But to get a real feel for the deeper ideas and message of “Rising Down,” it makes all the difference in the world to listen to the album’s freestyles like “@ 15,” “Unwritten,” and the album’s hidden track.

As much as the group insists Rising Down shouldn’t be a downer, it sort of is. The opening track is a recorded shouting match, and the only real chance to breathe is the track “Singing Man.” Despite that, the message is what shines through any issues with sound or tempo.

As drummer ?uestlove said in a Vanity Fair interview earlier this month, “Our approach has to be that Looney Tunes image of that professor having the mallet behind his back — unsuspecting and then mashing it over someone’s head. We’ll see. I just don’t know if people listen anymore. That’s the problem. You have to spoon-feed it to them. We'll try to open some ears.”