The Roots’ most underrated album (maybe because there was no single to promote it?), and I confess that I underrated it at first too. But listening and re-listening, this is the best hip-hop album of 2008 (I know, I know, I said that about Q-Tip’s The Renaissance and then I said that about Jake One’s White Van Music, but I’m sure about it this time), and a saving grace in the absolute wasteland that was hip-hop in the late 00s. Kamal Gray’s synth tones are fuzzier, darker, grimier, contrasting with ?uestlove’s drums, which are heady and forward-pushing; often militaristic (“Get Busy”, “The Show”) and always muscular. Meanwhile, lyrically? Here’s The Village Voice’s Tom Breihan: “Rising Down is an album about the devaluation of human life, the way vast inhuman forces keep fucking with people’s everyday existences. Thankfully, we don’t hear too much about how terrible rap is these days beyond one verse where Dice Raw bitches about BET. The concerns are bigger here: the absurd violence that’s taken over Philly lately, environmental collapse, financial instability, general desperation.” Yup – this is their most politically-informed album ever; hearing these lyrics and their delivery over these sonics, you’d think this was released in 2002. And the number of high-profile features (from conscious regulars like Common to Wale) adds a communal sweep to the record (this is in contrast to the following How I Got Over, where there were even more features but no such sweep).
It’s not perfect. It was a bad idea letting Styles P and Peedi Peedi cap off “Rising Down” and “Get Busy” respectively: both awkwardly tackle piracy and technology (Styles P: “Look at technology: they call it downloading / I call it downsizing; somebody follow me / Does a computer chip have an astrology?”; Peedi Peedi: “Fuck the internet / Buy a baseball bat, break a bootlegger leg”). And that’s not the worst part of either verse. Styles P starts off forcing wordplay (“Should I say ‘hello’ or should I say that ‘hell is low’? / Am I nigga or a niggero? / I’m an African-American”) and Peedi Peedi’s verse takes a random detour into “You know I’m politically incorrect / At the show, I start it with a ‘Can I get a ho?’ / And the hoes go retarded.”
On the other side of things, the album sort of just patters out, despite cramming high profile features into each song. A feeble hook mars the otherwise solid “Lost Desire”, with its keyboard pings that could pass for screams. And Pitchfork’s Nate Patrin is right when he writes that closer “Rising Up”, with its “overly tidy-sounding keyboards” and “mawkish Chrisette Michele vocal”, seems “out of place” (though Tom Breihan counters that “the drums are stay way too busy to let [the keyboard] do much damage”). None of these three songs are bad, just not on par with the preceding tracks. And “The Pow Wow (Intro)” (and the 3-minute outdo version available as a bonus track) is useless to everyone not named the Roots – apparently, it’s a veiled insult at major labels.
But minor quibbles aren’t enough to detract from the album as a whole, just like Styles P isn’t enough to bring down “Rising Down”: Mos Def opens the album with one of his best verses, choke-full of consonance (“Winding roads that test the firm nerve / Fortune or fatal behind the blind curve”) and alliteration (“Your ways and acts / Zero tolerance to raise the tax / It don’t matter how your gates is latched / You ain’t safe from the Danger Jack”), and visceral imagery between the two examples (“Bone gristle popping from continuous grinding”). Meanwhile, a dark keyboard/guitar line injects the song with melody and an undercurrent of unease while Dice Raw’s repeated hook works as either an opener (if he’s saying “Hello”) or a call-to-arms (if he’s saying “Huddle”). Even better is “75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction)” which secures Black Thought’s place in Valhalla (as if he hasn’t already; he was always a great MC that might’ve been mistaken as a lesser one because unlike other great MCs, he operates with a great band): a non-stop syllabic slaughter over a ?uestlove beat that’s both propulsive and provides enough room for Black Thought, groaning bass and high-speed trains whistling their warnings.
But Rising Down really hits its stride in the middle stretch. Saigon drops the album’s best verse on “Criminal” (I’d quote the whole thing if I thought that would do it justice, but the guy races through the following multi-syllabic rhymes: “repentance,” “sentence,” “senseless,” “experience,” “difference,” “convince this,” “infants,” “benefits,” “emphasis,” “nemesis,” “percentages” and “belligerence” – it’s fucking breathtaking). A kinetic guitar drives “I Will Not Apologize” and what effects is the album’s catchiest (aside from the aforementioned “Rising Up”), juxtaposed with the high-pitched synth line. And “I Can’t Help It” is the album’s darkest beat: a continuous synth pulse and drums that mimic the hiss of snakes.
So yeah, great album. They did a collaboration with Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump over a bouncy beat and released it as a single. And then they decided to make a dark album and delegated “Birthday Girl” to a bonus track so who cares?