The Roots’ 1993 debut album, “Organix,” was groundbreaking, experimenting with live hip-hop instrumentation and powerful socially conscious lyrics during a time when sampling and gangsta rap were on top. Since then, the Philadelphia-bred hip-hop band has worked hard year after year to produce classic albums such as “Illadelph Halflife,” “Things Fall Apart,” and “Phrenology,” all of which received much critical acclaim. It is now fifteen years later, and The Roots are still going strong. Their most recent effort, “Rising Down,” is no different.
A continuation of their last album, “Game Theory,” in both theme and musical style, “Rising Down” reflects The Roots’ progressively darker, more political-charged tone of recent years. The album is a direct response to the rapidly increasing number of social issues affecting the working-class black community, such as racism and poverty, and features an A-list of guest appearances, including Common, Talib Kweli, Dice Raw, Saigon, Truck North, as well as many others.
Nearly all of the songs on “Rising Down” are excellent. The album’s title track, featuring Mos Def, Black Thought, and Styles P, is a thought-provoking commentary of American society, offering an introspective take on complex issues such as rising taxes, corporate downsizing and drug trafficking. All three MCs are spot on lyrically. “Criminal,” “Singing Man,” and “I Will Not Apologize” are also extraordinarily well done, with appearances by Dice Raw, Talib Kweli, and Truck North.
Dice Raw’s verse on “I Will Not Apologize” hits especially close to home, faulting American society for the popularity of mainstream ‘gangsta’ rappers: “Jewels rented, cars rented, homie that ain’t authentic/ Acting tough on TV but to me you seem a little timid/ Don’t blame the n****, blame America, it’s all business/ Acting like a monkey is the only way to sell tickets,” he rhymes over an explosive beat.
The Roots are also not afraid to experiment. ?uestlove, the band’s drummer and main producer, has done an excellent job of pushing the envelope to incorporate a large variety of genres into the band’s sound. “Rising Up,” featuring Wale and Chrissette Michelle, has a jazzy go-go beat. “I Can’t Help It” has a very progressive, almost industrial sound. A later released bonus track, entitled “Birthday Girl,” features Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump, and has a laidback pop rock feel. On many of the other tracks, The Roots sound less like a live band, utilizing more synth and electronic effects, but turn out well.
“Rising Down” is simply more proof that the Roots are one of the musically innovative hip-hop groups of the last two decades. These artists are down-to-earth, socially conscious lyricists alarmed by black-on-black violence and the inequities between America’s working class and the elite. Their lyrics are about raising awareness to the injustices that plague society, and empowering the black community to do better. It’s easily one of the best hip-hop albums of the year. If you don’t already own it, go buy it.
-Robert Burns, II
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