And you know we don’t give a fuck it’s not your birthday
Rising Down, the new Roots album, starts with a tape of a 1994 phone conversation where various bandmembers and their managers scream at each other. As an album intro, it’s both deeply irritating and oddly appropriate. In album’s press package, ?uestlove notes that the group included that conversation to prove that the band’s label problems are nothing new; they’ve been going on since before the first major-label Roots album came out. That might be true, but that sense of opposition has long defined the Roots nearly as much as their still-incredible live shows. They were bitching about the state of rap back in the mid-90s, when great rap albums were coming out on a weekly basis, and the fact that they were releasing great rap albums back then only partially atones for that sin. The animosity towards whatever’s passed as a rap mainstream has long gone in both directions; even when Jay-Z was semi-routinely joining them onstage, Def Jam somehow managed to bury them. Game Theory, the album they released two years ago, was my favorite Roots album in forever because they let that free-floating frustration sink into the aesthetic fabric of their music, almost completely excising the diffuse Fender Rhodes nonsense that’d fucked up their previous couple of albums and substituting a terse, claustrophobic clatter that eliminated nearly all of their empty space and left them sounding urgent and fierce. Rising Down pushes them even further in that direction, to great effect. I’m not going to make the same mistake as I did writing about Game Theory which I said might’ve been their best album; I’ve been spending too much time with Illadelph Halflife lately for that. But the Rising Down is a strong album, one that would be way stronger if they’d edited out a couple of songs.
Credit where it’s due: ?uestlove’s drums on Rising Down are incredible. Crisp, precise breakbeats tumble all over each other and give Black Thought a chance to show off his own considerable technical skills, and the rest of the band keeps pace with the two of them. Other than on a couple of short and negligible instrumental tracks, the only time the Fender Rhodes returns is on the pretty great go-go pastiche “Rising Up,” where the drums are stay way too busy to let it do much damage. Instead, we get a whole lot of fuzzed-out, discordant synths, the last thing I would’ve expected to hear on a Roots record a few years ago. “I Can’t Help It” has a pulsating almost-Southern electro burble, and “Get Busy” has a rumbling keyboard blare that almost reminds me of “Deep Cover” for some reason. “75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction)” is my favorite kind of Roots track, Black Thought absolutely going nuts over a furiously fast ?uestlove snare workout, no chorus required. “I Will Not Apologize” has a burbling spy-movie guitar riff as rhythmic as the drums. A couple of songs have terrible rock-dude sung choruses, but even those don’t mess with the overwhelmingly bleak aesthetic at work here.
And the sound matches the album’s central sentiment. From what I can tell, Rising Down is an album about the devaluation of human life, the way vast inhuman forces keep fucking with people’s everyday existences. Thankfully, we don’t hear too much about how terrible rap is these days beyond one verse where Dice Raw bitches about BET. The concerns are bigger here: the absurd violence that’s taken over Philly lately, environmental collapse, financial instability, general desperation. Only a couple of tracks are given over to battle-raps; the rest is societal-ills stuff. Black Thought has never been my favorite rapper; he’s skilled and intense, but he never shows much in the way of personality, and he never sounds like he’s having any fun. When he’s working such relentlessly grim material, though, his limitations end up detracting a whole lot less than usual. And every once in a while, he’ll come up with a really resonant image, like this one, from “Lost Desire”: “Your funeral, they hang your 12th-grade portrait / Pretty corpse and casket, bell-shaped orchids.” Still, this time the band is smart enough to surround him with guests. Some of the frequent Roots collaborators bring nothing new; Talib Kweli and Common, for instance, are totally out of place on this heavy synth-rap stuff. And we also get too much of the group’s two decent but relatively green new sidekicks, the nondescript Truck North and the horribly-named P.O.R.N. But we also get Peedi Crack, who I guess isn’t about to become a full-time Roots member but who still absolutely murders his cameo on “Get Busy”; it’s hard to imagine Thought finding a better foil than this cartoon-voiced weirdo. Saigon and Wale also hit their marks hard. And then there’s the title track, where Mos Def sounds like his swaggering old self and Styles P indulges in a rare opportunity to entertainingly get his Def Poetry Jam on: “Does a computer chip have an astrology? / When it fuck up, could it give you an apology?”
But then there’s “Birthday Girl.” The rest of the album hangs together so well that it really works as a shock when the band’s ill-considered crossover attempt shows up at the end. “Birthday Girl” is quite possibly the worst thing the Roots have ever done. I don’t necessarily have a problem with Patrick Stump from Fall Out Boy showing up to bleat a hook, but it’s tough to imagine his voice being less effectively deployed. The guy only sounds good over revved-up mall-emo guitar-squall, but here they’ve got him warbling over breakbeats and staccato acoustic guitars here, and he ends up totally exposed. Black Thought, meanwhile, talks about crushing on an underaged chick and then seems to blame the girl for it, which is just layer upon layer of creepy. When I wrote about Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” a couple of days ago, a few people in the comments section compared the track unfavorably to “Birthday Girl.” I don’t see it. They’re both crossover attempts, but “Lollipop” is Wayne’s shot at engaging the changing pop climate on his own terms, while “Birthday Girl” is aimed at some imagined audience that probably doesn’t exist; not even the Gym Class Heroes could get away with this bullshit. Other than a couple of hidden tracks, “Birthday Girl” is the last song on the album, and maybe it’s sequenced that way as a sort of concession to the group’s fanbase, a winking message that making “Birthday Girl” was the only way they could put out an album full of grim synth-rap bangers. Maybe that’s true. But “Birthday Girl” isn’t the Roots’ first crossover attempt. They’ve been pretty candid about how “You Got Me” was a song specifically designed to get them radio play, but that song still worked with what they were doing at the time, and it didn’t invalidate all the other stuff that’d come before it on Things Fall Apart. If “Birthday Girl” is the price we’ve got to pay for an album like Rising Down to exist, maybe it’s worth it, but I’m not entirely convinced.
Voice review: Will Dukes on the Roots’ Game Theory
Voice review: Oliver Wang on the Roots’ The Tipping Point
Voice review: Dave Tompkins on the Roots’ Phrenology
Voice review: Miles Marshall Lewis on the Roots’ Things Fall Apart