Flash back to February 23, 2000, the night of the 2000 Grammy Awards. This was the when the Roots arguably broke onto the mainstream music scene with a Grammy win. The win didn’t result in immediate media hype for them, but it did resurrect what had been, up to that point, a dying concept in hip-hop that had once been championed by bands like A Tribe Called Quest and the Fugees. Suddenly, record executives became aware of artists such as Mos Def, Common, Talib Kweli, and others that essentially constituted this genre at the same time. As a result of the Roots’ win, these other artists started to actually get promoted, their videos were in rotation on MTV, and some songs even got Top 40 radio play. Things looked bright not just for “edgy” mainstream rappers like Eminem, but also for these underground rappers.
Around 2004, as Eminem began to decline and his associates threatened to set off a potentially violent “rap war,” executives were desperate to thrust the limelight on someone else and get music consumers’ minds off the negativity. It would have thus seemed logical that the Roots and others would finally get the proper promotion they deserved, but such was not the case. Kanye West, a little-known producer outside underground rap circles, seemed to appear on the music scene overnight and essentially established a chokehold on rap and the music industry in general that lasts through today. As for these underground artists? Not did their lack of promotion continue, but many began to get pressured by these major labels to make radio-friendly content under the threat of being released from contract.
It’s useful to know this as you begin listening to the Roots’ tenth release, Rising Down. We stumble into what appears to be a heated conversation in 1994 between drummer/producer Amir “?uestlove” Thompson and DGC record executives—Thompson lambasts the label for not giving him and the band enough promotion, and the executive escalates the argument by starting to scream at him, and with that, the tone is set.
What follows after that is one big middle finger of an album. It’s pretty unclear if it’s directed towards one person or thing in general—perhaps there may be multiple targets. But these guys are pissed off, and they pretty much spend the whole album justifying their anger. The beautiful thing about the record is, with rhymes like “They makin me break my contents under pressure/Do not shake I’m workin’ while the boss relaxin” and “Who got the polititians in they back pocket?/Pimp slap pump that gimmie that profit” they could be talking about their years of servitude under Geffen or it could be a metaphor for the larger societal issue of the working man and the evil employer. The best example of this blurring of the lines is in “The Show,” where Black Thought intersperses his struggle with the industry (“I put my body in jeopardy, ‘cuz I’m committed/even though they tried to stifle your man creatively”) with that of a soldier’s (“Fighting a war they ain’t pay me enough to join/Behind a phrase they was crazy enough to coin”). Certainly, with the economy going in the tank almost everyone is going to be hit hard, and it’s refreshing to see that the Roots are honest about the impact that all this has, even on entertainers like themselves. But then again, this sort of thing has always been one of the Roots’ assets and why they’ve been able to cross over so successfully to non hip-hop audiences— many rappers fall prey to the trap of writing lyrics that only a certain audience can relate to, but not Black Thought.
No issue remains untouched. Corrupt politicians (“Get Busy”), shooting sprees (“Criminal,”), job search struggles (“I Will Not Apologize”), drug abuse (“I Can’t Help It”), suicidal tendencies (“Singing Man”), and the causes of violence in general (“Lost Desire”) are all discussed. Perhaps the only issue with all this is that Black Thought and co. offer no viable solution to any of these problems. When you think about that, you really have to wonder—are you wasting your time sitting there and listening to the Roots, as opposed to going out and trying to make changes in your life and the world around you?
The guest artists do an excellent job in dropping verses consistent with the overall theme of “there is something seriously wrong in this country right now.” I mean, who would ever expect Styles P, well-known for his violent drug-loving lyrics, to offer such deep, reflective commentary as “Look at technology they call it downloading/I call it downsizing somebody follow me/Does a computer chip have an astrology?/When it fuck up could it give you an apology?” Speaking of guest appearances, this album has more than any previous Roots release. Malik B, a former member who left the group after the Grammy win, may as well be back in the group full-time as he makes his second straight guest appearance for the band on multiple tracks. Dice Raw, a Philly associate who’s been on a few albums, also shows up in a number of tracks. And of course, the band’s fellow big-name contemporaries are all here—Mos Def, Talib Kweli (twice, with one showcasing his best Canibus impersonation), and Common all come strong on separate tracks (though it would have been nice to see a big posse cut).
Despite the beginning and ending interludes featuring negative throwbacks to the past, others reveal that things weren’t always so bad in the old days. Interspersed throughout the album is a freestyle session from the band presumably before they were famous on a community radio station, and a brief rap on a cassette tape from a young, raw Black Thought when he was only 15.
The production is also an example of what makes the Roots such a dynamic, ever-changing band. ?uestlove announced months back that the keyboardist Kamal Grey would be focusing heavily on synthesizers in this album, and it clearly shows as the band shifts miles away from their jazz roots. Essentially, ?uestlove has overseen an amalgam of the rap, rock, and electronic genres with his work on these songs, assisted ably by Tahir Jamal, the Mateen Bros, Richard Nichols and others, and you can’t help but agree with him when he says it’s like the “musical equivalent of Blade Runner.”
Near the end, we get somewhat of a resolution to the argument that opened up the album that’s quite hilarious, but despite this much-needed injection of humor in what is otherwise an even darker journey than the band’s previous record, Game Theory, you’ll be full of questions after one listen. It’d be easy to say that the album was an angry screed against Geffen based on the beginning and opening tracks alone, and the struggles of society are used as a metaphor for their struggles with the label. But it’s important to remember that this record was supposed feature a song with Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy, something that Def Jam was reportedly very excited about, and the band dropped it from the album at the last minute. Also, it’s been almost three years since they signed to the label, and the guy who signed them (Jay-Z) has been long gone. Couple all this with ?uestlove’s comments on the eve of the album release about Def Jam’s complete obliviousness to their existence, and it becomes crystal clear that this album is not just a middle finger to Geffen, but a warning to their current employers as well. Let’s hope for the band’s sake that this time around, the label wakes up and pays attention, because from where we stand this stuff is more than just rousing—it’s a much needed wake-up call.