The first couple of times I listened to Rising Down, the Roots’ ninth (!) album, I couldn’t stop wondering if this was actually their last contractual release for Def Jam. There’s a longstanding tradition of artists using albums to douse legal obligations, tossing them together from the odds ‘n’ ends they have lying around. Remember everything Prince was putting out right before unshackling himself from Warner Bros.? Even Marvin Gaye once paid alimony with the proceeds from a confusing work he bitingly titled Here, My Dear, though today many consider it one of his most probing and poignant recordings. I was kind of seeing Rising Down that way—sort of a big, directionless mess—until I did something really simple: I put on headphones. I just wanted to hear it a bit more intimately. It made all the difference.
What became blatant were the nuances of the Roots’ dystopia; the rather painterly way they use sound, in the compositional modes that hip-hop affords, to render a world not only under duress, but, in fact, permanently diseased: Dhalgren on wax. There’s no If we all just hold on moment here. That’s not surprising, with Rising Down coming from native sons of the nation’s most violent large city, Philadelphia, ironically the Greek word for “brotherly love.”
“Get Busy,” the first single, burns like the bombing of MOVE, mating a weighty kick-and-snare to a morbid chorus of fuzzy synth drones. “My squad half-Mandrill, half-Mandela,” rapper Black Thought intones. “My band ’bout 70 strong, just like Fela.” Coupled with guest lyrical maestros Dice Raw (“I’m half-dead/Never felt more alive”; “I’m kinda W.E.B. DuBois meets Heavy D & the Boyz”) and the reedy Peedi Crack, the whole fest bristles with the nervous energy of riot control on dust. “Criminal” blends weightless guitar chords into an unending, sun-dappled tapestry, while an aching, ethereal vocal, sung by Kevin Hanson, winds the chorus—”Monday they predict the storm/Tuesday they predict the bang/Wednesday they cover the crash”—round and round your brain like your memory of that girl you spent a weekend with in some wooded place, and that you still can’t forget.
In fact, what’s really obvious from the album, if it wasn’t already, is the degree to which the Roots express the personal vision of Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, the band’s meticulous drummer and de facto leader. The production style displays unique shadings and shifts in sound, suggesting an attention to sonic detail emblematic of a drummer with the deep musical (especially jazz-related) knowledge that ?uestlove owns.
But this may also sustain the most oft-heard complaint against the Roots: the seeming inability of their lead vocalist, Black Thought, to unfailingly deliver “hip-hop quotables”: sweet, mind-curving, track-rewind-compelling couplets that Dice Raw provides here. Is zealous love for the track submerging the band’s vocalist? When producing Public Enemy, Hank Shocklee swore by the importance of putting the rapper front and center in the mix, of not burying him. “Rap is a contact sport,” he’d say. Doing otherwise is like running a defense while running away—choosing fight and flight. And as the title of this album affirms, you can’t have it both ways.
The Roots play Radio City Music Hall May 9 with Erykah Badu