The Roots brutally tell things like they are while simultaneously making incredible music (actually, that’s nothing new for the Illa-5th, but a novel idea for the dying music industry as a whole). So, this is my track-for-track review of The Roots Rising Down, which makes its way into record stores and online MP3 outlets today. Let’s get right into it...
(Originally written on April 29, 2008)
Act 1: Heating Up.
The Pow Wow – Chilling (and I ain’t talking Cold Chillin’). Tariq, Quest, AJ Shine and Rich Nichols (who will beat you up sucka!!!) getting into a phone scuffle over record label problems with Geffen (I’m guessing around the time of Do You Want More?!!!??!). Audio proof of The Roots sticking up for themselves in the name of creative freedom. You know, if this little scuffle didn’t happen, us fans wouldn’t have been able to enjoy albums 1-11 (or 1-8 if only counting studio albums) of this amazing hip hop band. Puts the upcoming tracks into perspective already. How so very efficient.
Rising Down – Hello. Perfect lead in after the chaos-tro. Great to hear Miggity Mos back to doing what he does best, and getting the honour to be the first MC to lead off a Roots album other than Tariq (which is very fitting considering that there are more guests on this album than on any Roots album before, I think). Thought rips it with a cautionary verse about mother nature and corporate injustices. Styles P sounds great with the OKP fam. A very bleak intro track, sets the tone for the entire album. Constant "hum drumming" of the buzzing background beat is quite foreboding when you try to tune into it. "Rewind the tape" lyrics: It don’t matter how your gates is latched/You ain’t safe from the danger, Jack/Made it way before they made a map/Or a G-P-S/This is D-E-F.
Get Busy – No doubt it does. Bass hits hard, heavy and fuzzy even, with electronic noises throughout. Ill. The legendary DJ Jazzy Jeff on the scratches. Everyone showing their ass on this one as there is so much energy (get busy, indeed). Peedi Crakk may have edged out Thought for best verse here, if only for the unique way he rides the beat with a cadence matching the disjointed tempo. “Rewind the tape” lyrics: Dice Raw and Black/F*ck the innna-net!/Uncle Sam tryin’ to tax all my hard earned raps/Damn! We making yens, pesos, euros, we representin’.
@ 15 – Thought sounds so young on this. Must be 1992 or even earlier. He’s already mastered the Big Daddy Kane type flow at a young age. Would like some liner notes on this one (although word is that there aren’t any in the jewel case). "Rewind the tape" lyrics: Leave MCs blind with amnesia/chop ‘em into salad and my name ain’t Caesar...And I’ll be the blame when you go insane.
75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction) – Fast forward to present day. In the same tradition as Thought @ Work and Web, this is the greatest MC alive showing exactly why that is. And according to Tariq himself, he did this all in one take with NO PUNCH INS! (and sitting down on a couch, apparently). That’s insane, but knowing this microphone god’s ability, that’s not surprising. Using Tuba Gooding Jr. for the bassline was an ingenious idea by ?uesto (especially in the absence of Hub’s basslines). And those drums are grimey as hell (I notice a pattern here). "Rewind the tape" lyrics: I’m in ya girl with her heels in the air, nigga…If I got beef with you, you the last one to know...Y’all are still a light year from the level I’m on (and too many others…this track is made up of ill one liners).
Becoming Unwritten – Still trying to figure out the premise of this track. Is it that the song is erasing itself before it can even really get started? Interesting. I wonder what they could have...
Act 2: Cooling Out
Criminal – Reminds me of Livin’ In A New World from Game Theory. Conjures up visions of train rides, the wild west and remorseful gunslingers killing eachother over that cash. "Rewind the tape" lyrics: I’m not runnin’, I done ran through the muck/I done scrambled and such/I done robbed and odd jobbed and gambled enough…If there’s a God, I don’t know if he listenin’ or what
I Will Not Apologize – Just groovin’ with the bassline. Love the tag team hook. Thought’s clean-up verse stands out considering he rhymes EVERY bar with the word ‘apologize’, and unapologetically at that. I think a lot of people don’t realize how difficult it is to find that many rhymes for one word. How the fcuk can anyone say that Thought is a boring MC??? Them muf*ckas need to wake up and apologize to the modern day microphone god, Mr. Trotter. "Rewind the tape" lyric: Vilified/victimized/penalized/criticized/ran into some people that surprised I was still alive.
I Can’t Help It – This beat is super sick. Electronic subterranean spaced out type sh!t. And who better to ride it out first than M-ILL-itant. Would love to see Malik B re-join the group full time, but hey, I can’t complain judging by his stellar appearances on Game Theory and now Rising Down. Just glad to hear him spit wax poetic on a Roots album, going back and forth with Thought again. Great breakdown at the end (love them breakdowns). Rewind lyric: Make rhymes in 5 minutes...Press rewind see what you find in my image/take you niggas back to the line of a scrimmage...I’m on some bomb threat in the mail sh*t/because of all the things I dealt with/nigga I can’t help it.
Singing Man – The anti-war track. This sounds like the product of the feelings generated by The Roots’ brilliant cover of Bob Dylan’s Masters of War (which I saw them perform live on their Game Theory tour in 2007). I also didn’t expect to hear Dice Raw ever singing on a Roots track. But on this album, he’s proving to be the hook master and doing it really well. A unique track, complementing the ill-ness of I Can’t Help It, while really making you use your noodle. "Rewind the tape" lyrics: Kid holding a weapon/walk like a corpse in the face of transgression...he killing cuz he feeling he got nothing to live for/in a war taking hits for men like Charles Taylor/and never see the undisclosed foreign arms dealer/13 year-old killer.
Unwritten – A continuation of Becoming Unwritten, perhaps? The biggest shame with this track is that it wasn’t longer, as I absolutely loved the vibe. And listening to Black Thought, you almost expect him to go on for 2 more verses. I actually thought this would be the one full length solo Black Thought track, and in a way, it was (only it wasn’t long enough). But now I know why it was used this way. It’s the outro to the middle act of the album, and in that way, it works flawlessly. It also seems like the sister track to Panic!!!!! from Illadelph Halflife, especially with the brief but very vivid storytelling. The ending is jarring, topped off by a gun cocking. Damn. Rewind: The suspense had my heart racin’, throbbin’…the cigarettes chase the vodka/the nigga just chased the dream but won’t taste the monster.
The Final Act: Hope Rising / Fire Within.
Lost Desire – Head nodding Roots sh!t right here as the album explodes into the final turn and picks up speed through the home stretch. Everybody kills it on this one (great to hear Kweli on a Roots track again), another super grimey electronic beat (damn ?uest). This song will be unreal live, I can see it (and I can see Tariq doing all 3 verses flawlessly). The outro made me tear slightly as it was a chilled out (and rather touching) beat tribute to Dilla and his ill-tastic "Don't Nobody Care About Us" beat from Phat Kat’s Carte Blanche album. "Cuz don’t nobody care about us. All they do is doubt us. Til we blow the spot, then they all wanna crowd us". Bring it back: Yeah we got flags but they not Star Spangled...fear itself personified/paying homage to homicide/praying to the dollar sign.
The Show – The Show, it must go on. ?uest’s awesome dirty drum beat is like a call to arms of The Legendary musical army. Common’s back, completing the trilogy of the Com/Thought duets on Roots albums. Although lyrically, he still sounds like he’s stuck in Finding Forever mode (which is fine for them "coffee shop chicks and white dudes", heh, but a bit underwhelming for his hardcore fanbase who are well aware of what he is capable of). Still, it’s a decent verse. However, it pales in comparison with Thought’s second verse where he drops his best group of bars of the entire album. Here it is in its entirety, because it’s that damn good: Reeeeeeeeewwwiiiiiiiiinnnnd!!!
The Ernest Hemingway of b-boy poems/they can never take the pen away I'm Leroy Jones/pushin’ a black Yukon Gold in a new times zone/diggin on every nuance with two eyes closed/the life I chose/more of a mission/I make a crowd convulse/and act on impulse and intuition/I've seen the future listen/believe the superstition I keep spittin’/ til it’s a truce or crucifixion/I’m at home in the pressure zone/weakness is never shown/let alone, I’m a man made of mere flesh ‘n bone/I can’t help that my heartbeat is a metronome/and I’ve acquired a taste that’s upper echelon/lyrical professional/maniac-megalo/plate in my head that spin the way the record go/and break it down like it was the walls of Jhericho/if they don’t know by now, they'll probably never know.
Exactly. F*ck all the haters that don’t know that Thought is the king of lyrics, because they’ll never know. For the record, that was an amazing verse to transcribe.
Rising Up – The first time I heard this, I couldn’t help but get up and dance around the room (my little nephew bobbed his head to it...he’s 16 months old and has rhythm already). It’s that much fun. Thought’s just kickin’ it here as he rides the wonderful beat effortlessly, putting his fun hip hop lyric face on to match the vibe, but still with the swagger "like Bobby Deniro, Joe ‘Pesc’ an’em cats" Wale kills it. "Good rappers ain’t eatin’/They Olsen Twin-it"? Haha. Sad but true and funny. Chrisette Michelle sounds heavenly on this, as she always does. This is perfect for the lead single, and translates really well live (judging by the awesome performance of this song on Letterman last night). Actually, anything The Roots do translates well live, considering that is their specialty, but you know what I mean. This incredible single caps off one of my favourite "home stretches" of any album I’ve ever heard. Sequenced and executed to perfection, really.
Hidden Track Part 1: 1994 off the top of the dome freestyle by Black Thought and Malik B over the Distortion To Static beat. Nothing much to say here other than just kick back, nod your head and enjoy the wonderful display of MC freestyling in its purest form.
Hidden Track Part 2: The Pow Wow 2. After things have calmed down, AJ Shine explains to the boys what the deal is regarding label etiquette and cultural differences in terms of handling disagreements. And everyone is all the better for it after the emotional explosion of The Pow Wow. Considering dropping the group due to label problems scares me too, after having seen the great things that these guys ended up doing in their careers (just imagine if all of that never happened...). You couldn’t ask for more perfect and meaningful bookends than these 2 ancient phone conversations (as well as the Rising Down/Up tracks). Hilarious ending, which reminds everyone to just be easy as life shouldn’t be so damn stressful as we all tend to make it. Release...
Final Thoughts (for now): Up to this point, I’ve listened to the album less than 10 times (I mean, it’s just coming out in stores today). And that isn’t a lot with an album like this. So my opinions may change, and my fave lyrics may change, but what won’t change is how much I’m digging it already (OK, maybe that might change as I may love it even more). But really, all fan-boyism aside (yeah right), this is yet another cohesive effort from The Legendary Roots Crew. Right now I would put it in 4th, behind Illadelph, Game Theory, and DYWM, and just a hair in front of Things Fall Apart. I’m usually not a fan of interludes, but the ones on this album not only serve the subject matter well, but ease their way in and out of the tracks so effortlessly that you almost don’t notice them (they are seamless, not invisible). This is a harder album to digest than Game Theory, and I’m not sure I would recommend it to people getting into The Roots like I did with Game Theory. They gotta work up to this one. But at 45 minutes (minus the hidden tracks), the listen is easy, quick and with no filler (I’ve really gotten used to this trend of short, compact albums as you can digest it so many times in a given day without getting indigestion). Um, what else is there to say? Nothing. Just get out and buy a copy (or 2) of Rising Down to ensure that it sells more than Game Theory’s under-appreciated 150K. Just look for the fantastically controversial album cover (which has become one of my favourites as the history behind it is so shocking yet interesting) and be sure to take time to properly digest this one, because despite its dark subject matter, it feels and tastes great as it rises down to your stomach. Mmmm...