[28 April 2008]
The title of the Roots’ eighth studio album, Rising Down, is taken from William T. Vollmann’s book Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means, originally published as a seven-volume tome in 2003. It’s the third time the Philadelphia hip-hop group has named an album after a book, following Things Fall Apart (1999) and The Tipping Point (2004)—fourth if you count 2002’s Phrenology—and that connection to a literary/cultural consciousness is sort of what defines the band as a contradictory force in the thick of an otherwise trend-hungry pop culture. While the album may not be the minutia-racked equivalent of Vollmann’s 3,352-page opus (a heavily abridged edition was released in 2004), Rising Down does prove to be an provocative peer of cultural riot-acting and pragmatic contextualization—though, as contemporary pop music, it provides a much more immediate delivery of social ethics from a street-level perspective.
This sort of thematic tack is old hat for the Roots, who have been making music of “urgent means” and concern for years now—at least since Things Fall Apart, and most intensely underscored on 2006’s masterful Game Theory. Rising Down serves up an infuriated and uneasy take on a well-trod methodology that transforms mere fin de siècle paranoia into point-of-no-return panic. Throughout Rising Down, the Roots (with a seemingly endless reserve of guests that includes Dice Raw, Peedi Peedi, former Roots member Malik B., Common, and Talib Kweli) touch upon global warming and the hypocrisy of the American healthcare system, police brutality and the provocations of crime, life during wars of absurdity and principle, and, ultimately, how the only way out of it all is access to ridiculous wealth and/or industry.
“It’s like 80 degrees in Alaska / You in trouble if you’re not an Onassis,” Black Thought states in the album’s title track, reiterating the dual deus ex machinas of any life-threatening disaster: a wad of cash or a big boat. With its cache of smoldering synthesizer-heavy vamps, distrustful rhymes, and some of ?uestlove’s most aggressive drum tracks, this record delivers its State of the Union from behind shuttered windows and deadbolted doors—a dissection of the abortive contracts of American life issued from the (dis)comfort of a bomb shelter. (“It don’t matter how your gates is latched,” Mos Def warns early on, “You ain’t safe from the danger, Jack.”) A song like “I Can’t Help It”, in particular, is so saturated with low-octave synth pulses and sampled vocal hooks that it sounds roboticized, a planted decoy holding a space while the band finds higher ground.
That’s not to say that the songs are dehumanized space-fillers; rather, they’re just not as immediate as those from the band’s last few albums (certainly there’s nothing as infectious here as Game Theory‘s “Long Time”). Rising Down strikes me as a new appraisal of the band’s sound, which, after forays into jazz, funk, and experimental rock, has now been ground down to a gray, gritty elemental force. It’s the first album without longtime bassist Leonard “Hub” Hubbard (Owen Biddle, who worked on Game Theory, assumes bass duties), yet another shift in the band’s lineup that may or may not have contributed to the record’s square-one feel. Often, tracks are based around the burrowing synth burbles and guitar arpeggios of Kamal Gray and “Captain” Kirk Douglas, respectively, and employ a strict performance aesthetic that clings like thick skin to bone. This music is so tightened up that any deviation from its pre-plotted course would cause the entire thing to collapse like a house of cards.
This is most evident on “Get Busy”, a broad-shouldered swagger of fuzzy synthesizers and boxy drums, and “I Will Not Apologize”, which uses a spy-film guitar figure as its droning centerpiece. But really, it’s everywhere: the clean guitars that spiral and knot around each other in “Criminal”; the shuffling descent of rhythm in “Singing Man”; the taut-rubber play between sousaphone and drums in “75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction)”, a lean excuse for Black Thought to drop heavy freestyle in the vein of past songs like “Web” and “Boom!”. The sonic palette becomes more expressive on the album highlight “Lost Desire”, with its thick-fingered low-end clavinet riff, cowbell rattle, and sonar ping; opting for the contradictory Funkadelic route, it marries an inviting groove with aptly cynical sentiment: “No one cares what the truth is / It’s a fortress built on lies.”
That metaphor extends to how day-to-day reality is distorted by the dissemination of false perceptions, and how, in turn, reality eventually becomes whatever it’s purported to be. The hook of “I Will Not Apologize”, for example, makes no excuses for an audience that misinterprets the true intention of music or lifestyle: “This is for all of my peoples who understand and truly recognize / Some won’t get it and for that, I won’t apologize.” In his verse, Dice Raw mocks how the major misperceptions of hip-hop are responsible for some of its successes and criticisms: “When we talkin’ ‘bout pimpin’ or sippin’ on Olde English brew / Or whatever they think we do / Spraying double Uzis cause you know they think we live in zoos.” Certain realities—the vilification of a condemned fate or social order, perhaps—are explored in songs like “Criminal” (Black Thought: “I done ran through the muck, I done scrambled and such / I done robbed and oddjobbed and gambled enough / Till I’m put up in handcuffs and pissin’ in a cup / If there’s a God, I don’t know if he’s listenin’ or what”) while Mercedes Martinez sings of destinies hanging in the balance in “Unwritten”: “Tomorrow’s story’s unknown, so listen: / It’s almost anyone’s guess, unwritten.”
Only on its final song, “Rising Up”, does Rising Down pop the cap on all the encroaching minor-key tension and take flight with a neo-soul eruption. “My stacks is grotesque, my squad so fresh,” Black Thought boasts, as the band rocks a percussion-heavy funk groove that tangs with the scent of optimism. The album’s finale doesn’t solve any problems or render the preceding tracks irrelevant, but it does pledge an oath to neutralize the banal and disingenuous, to be permanent in the wake of Clear Channel-mandated ephemera—so explosive, as truth often is.