The Roots - Rising Down 2LP
Def Jam Records
It would've been easy for the Roots to sell out. Already one of the few groups whose fans extend beyond the typical alternative rap base, tacking on the acoustic-guitary pop-rap song "Birthday Girl" -- which leaked the month before Rising Down's release and features Patrick Stump crooning "What is it we want to do, now that I'm allowed to be alone with you?" -- could've been a natural, and maybe even excusable move. Excusable as a way to show that the Roots can be lighthearted, fun, and tongue-in-cheek (though anyone who's heard any of their interviews or has frequented ?uestlove's blog already knows this to be true); not excusable, however, as the crossover track the label wanted it to be (and in fact, in Japan and Europe, as well as digitally, it remains as such). Fortunately, the Roots were smart and thoughtful enough -- the very qualities of whose criticism led to the creation of "Birthday Girl" -- to realize that its inclusion, even as an afterthought, a bonus track, was detrimental to the effect of the entire album, dumbing down their thoughts on poverty and race and politics with poppy melodies and creepy (albeit ironic) jokes about statutory rape and predatory old men.
Because as it stands, Rising Down acts as a powerful statement on contemporary society, a society in which even though the specific issues may have changed (global warming, BET, new technologies), the problems remain the same. For this reason the album begins and ends with a discussion from 1994, where Black Thought and ?uestlove are arguing about then-label Geffen with their managers, and other bits of the past are also spread throughout -- the 1987 freestyle "@15," which complements "75 Bars (Black's Reconstruction)," the reflection found in "Unwritten" and especially in the cover itself, which nods to the crude caricatures from early America, the black devil wreaking havoc on the white pilgrims below. But it is these very reminders that make the Roots and their message in 2008 so much more relevant: they give context. So when Black Thought says "It is what it is, because of what it was/I did what I did 'cause it does what it does" in "Criminal," he's not just looking as his character's current situation, he's drawing from history, and his conclusions are based upon lifetimes of "it being it" and "doing what it does," of struggling and fighting and trying to get by, to make it however he can.
These same thoughts are echoed by the Roots' MC and the myriad talented guests who add their own equally hard-hitting verses to the album's tracks. "My life is on a flight that's going down/My mother had an abortion for the wrong child/...I felt love, that's gone now" Porn rhymes in the disquieting "I Can't Help It" (the other rappers on the song tackle ideas of chemical and monetary addictions), while on "Singing Man," the dark, reticent production gurgles with the pain and anger heard and stated more overtly in the three MCs' voices (Porn, Black Thought, and Truck North) as they present the sympathetic -- but not condoning -- perspectives of suicide bombers and campus shooters and child soldiers. It's dark and serious and intense, but Rising Down does offer hope, too, mostly in the form of the closing track, "Rising Up," which features Def Jam backing vocals queen Chrisette Michele, D.C. upstart Wale, and a Jay-Z-friendly beat. "We 'bout to dominate the world like Oprah did it," Black Thought says to end the song, an optimism that's far more powerful than anything "Birthday Girl" can provide. Those words, confident but not cocky, are the final punctuation -- an ellipsis, though, leading to a yet-completed thought -- on an album that's both revelatory and full of questions, an album that understands its spot in the Roots' history and American history, and an album that continues to place the group as one of the country's most talented and relevant in any genre, no calculated crossover necessary.