Wednesday, December 21, 2011
The Roots: Rising Down (2008)
Of all the Roots' full-lengths since the all-time peak of Phrenology, it's clear to me that Rising Down is the most ambitious -- even now that they've wandered down concept LP territory this month. The most radical departures for a brilliant band that had grown increasingly pop-conscious (arguably mastering that mold with the wonderful Game Theory in 2006) are the overwhelmingly dour mood and emotional darkness, and moreover the amount of time given up to guest performers. The latter has become a trend on the Roots' releases, but the former renders Rising Down still something of a curio.
It's not that the band's maxed-out, organic R&B is any less persuasive and full-bodied. The sound still embraces a kind of romantic funk-jazz pastiche with stabs of '70s soul, and the hooks are as solid as they've ever been, especially during the album's largely irresistible midsection: "Criminal," "I Will Not Apologize," and "I Can't Help It" all feature some of the most explosive and involving choruses in the canon, and Black Thought holds his own against intrusions from Common, Mos Def, Talib Kewli and others as one of hip hop's moodiest and greatest MCs.
So what's the problem? I'm not sure that there is one, exactly; the album is an unerring and powerful document of an uneasy time that, we now know, was on the cusp of even greater discontent and disappointment. This is America in the 21st century: one long broken promise. The Roots aren't interested in explaining all this, only in tracking its consequences, so the album doesn't try to condescend or contextualize the distressing realities of 2008 -- it's uncompromising, and presumptive of our intelligence (one reason it's a good thing the upbeat and rather terrible single "Birthday Girl" was excised). It's just that with no light or real playfulness streaming through it, Rising Down is an actively depressing album that's only become more so through the years. The working class angst of How I Got Over and undun seems downright sunny by comparison, as does the sheer craft and messiness of Phrenology and Game Theory.
What Rising Down proves is that, when focused, the Roots can do almost anything, in this case steely-eyed funk that makes no apologies for its consciousness, its worries, its aging and the precision of its concerns and nightmares. Those are nightmares about the music business, the country, the supposed progression of minorities, and especially our political and economic future. Das Racist has shown us there are ways to do this and make it fun, but in some broad sense maybe it shouldn't be. On that logic, Rising Down would be the most impeccable hip hop LP of recent years if not for the number of times Black Thought steps aside in favor of far less skilled and interesting rappers. But that is a criticism of most recent Roots projects, and maybe it's time to face up -- these guys are too nice to find again the self-involvement that made something as crazy and beautiful as Phrenology. I still have every intention of growing old with the Roots, and I hope they keep letting us in.