2008 / Music

Review: The Roots Resurrect Themselves With ‘Rising Down’

Philadelphia Hip-Hop Troupe Releases Eighth Disc

Since their late ’80s formation in a Philadelphia school for the arts, the Roots have endured a rollercoaster ride of a career that has sometimes seen them championed as hip-hop trailblazers and other times marginalized as stubborn mavericks who will not or cannot make music that has widespread appeal.

Photo: Def Jam Recordings/IDJMG/Universal Music Group

Photo: Def Jam Recordings/IDJMG/Universal Music Group

The root of the problem is how the long-running rap crew has rigidly clung to their commitment to making hip-hop music exist not in a studio or even on vinyl, but in an entirely live context. And during all those years, the band has certainly seen a lot of stages — both figuratively and literally — as they’ve sought to fulfill their self-appointed mission.

The group’s music-making process is dedicated to turning rap’s conventional wisdom on its head. Regardless of what’s in front of them or on the radio, they’ve heedlessly absorbed hit-repellent musical styles and employed ever-evolving cast of supporting musicians as they continuously worked the road. All the while, the band has challenged themselves to win over traditional hip-hop fans despite their unorthodox use of live instruments and the fact that they almost completely shun samplers and DJs.

Emerging from a particularly rough downturn in their fortunes, the Roots’ new record, “Rising Down,” demonstrates the troupe has refocused intensity and injected renewed energy into their songs to finally capture what was once barely out of their grasp.

From their first LP to their latest, focus is both an attribute as well as an albatross for the Roots. As a band, the group members have often functioned as an inscrutable, collective beast, but one that seemed disciplined in execution but prone to wildly roam through whatever musical forms they desired. The band was sometimes musically flaky but dead serious in each experiment. They aggraded elements lovingly selected with a record collector’s taste, but each track delivered a sound blended through a common hip-hop prism.

The group’s standouts — drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and MC Black Thought — were the axis on whom this unique sound turned. Guitarists, keyboard players and rappers came and went in the songs and the band lineup, but the musical focus remained squarely on Questlove’s metronomic drum groove and Thought’s sparring raps. However, the pair’s personalities were such a dominating presence in the mix that it sometimes succeeded in turning the band’s distinctive twin poles into the Roots’ greatest weakness.

All of these detractions seemed to subside with their fifth album, “Phrenology.” The Roots hit its stride by assembling a sprawling collection of tracks that delved into R&B, rock and pop and featured a string of high-profile guests, but strove to install hooks that lighten up the propulsive jams. The band initially failed to hit the market with their best single yet, a re-recording of Cody Chestnutt’s “The Seed (2.0),” but the song broke through anyway and crept into rotation on MTV2. The disc, along with a stint on the hip-hop-oriented “Smoking Grooves” tour, a couple of live pairings with rap superstar Jay-Z and a consistent presence in the music documentary “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,” primed the Roots to breakthrough with mainstream hip-hop fans. Unfortunately for the band, that reverse crossover never came to pass.

Just as Eminem and 50 Cent fans seemed ready to join the bohemians and hipsters in accepting the Roots, the band members seemed to lose the plot. Subsequent releases, 2004’s “The Tipping Point” and 2006’s “Game Theory,” seemed creatively adrift. They attempted to buckle down on their songcraft — refining their lyrically darkest tracks yet — but yielded their sense of excitement and experimentation. ?uestlove and Black Thought began to overtake too many songs. Overall, isolated cuts escaped the assembly-line feel, but these were too few to rescue these albums or to keep the curious engaged in giving the Roots a chance. “Game Theory” sold thousands of fewer copies then many of the preceding CDs.

Their new disc, “Rising Down,” is a comeback that the group so desperately needs. The disc is 13 tracks on which all their excesses have been reined in — but not too much. The Roots devote themselves to making a musical impact instead of just cutting another song. Grooves pulsate and sizzle beyond just serving the rappers. Other instruments — phantom keyboards, rapier-thin guitar lines and complicated bass licks — make these songs full-bodied compositions as opposed to more ?uestlove-centered click tracks. This rap band finally sounds like a band.

Listeners expecting the Roots to welcome them into alternative hip-hop’s safe embrace are immediately thrown a curveball with the album’s title track, which inducts them not into a world of De La Soul sunniness but a straight gangsta anthem that would make the hardiest G-Unit soldiers quake. A synthesized, hissing fuzz and a spiderweb-like guitar pattern that recalls the theme from “The Exorcist” creates an eerie, paranoid backdrop for rappers Black Thought, fellow traveler Mos Def and Styles P. Each lyrically pounds his own chest while wrestling with their thuggish impulses. Their concept of the ghetto isn’t confined to particular neighborhoods, but dominates its inhabitants’ minds. On the nightmarish charge of “75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction),” Black Thought uses his command of verbal imagery to get even deeper into street life while simultaneously displaying his gymnastic mic skills.

“Criminal” also delves into inner city themes, but the music has a laconic, almost country feel to its urban mediations. The guitar sounds like a Jew’s harp and the bass softly pulsates at the same time that Thompson slaps the drum’s high-hat that might be several stories tall. Guest vocalist Kevin Hanson appears during the chorus only — like any ordinary hip-hop single — but instead of being an R&B belter, he croons just like a hayseed. As intriguing as his warbling is, he’s quickly shunted aside when Black Thought and fellow MCs Saigon and Truck North leap to the front of the mix. They’re un-phased by these odd sonic environs and deliver fast-moving rhymes like this was a Timbaland production.

“After perfecting a rap music cliché with “Rising Down” and just as quickly turning it inside out with “Criminal,” the Roots take a stand that they’ll defend all of urban culture on “I Will Not Apologize.” A “Hawaii Five-0,” angular guitar zigzags around a funeral organ that washes over and dissipates above the chorus. As an added surprise, the track’s somersaulting horn embellishment is a sample purloined from Afrobeat ambassador Fela Kuti, which subtly reveals the Roots’ wider influences. On the mic, Black Thought holds back and lets guest rappers Porn and Dice Raw dismiss the common stereotypes about black people that emerge from the other media and unconsciously reveal the extent of the blow to those seeking to celebrate what they cherish. “This for all of my peoples who understand and truly recognize/Some won’t get and for that I won’t apologize,” goes the refrain.

The finale “Rising Up” serves as both an honorarium of old school hip-hop as well as an opportunity to gripe about the Roots’ continued exile from hip-hop radio. Questlove is in his element while delivering a Stetsasonic-style drum pattern (with cowbell!) and bolstered by a game-show organ. It gives a funky, danceable rhythm for the group to target those who continue to exclude them from reaching a larger audience. “Yesterday, I saw a B girl crying,” guest vocalist Chrisette Michelle sings matter-of-factly. “She told me the radio is playing the same song all day long.”

With “Rising Down,” the Roots put forward several cuts as potential candidates deserving of a slot in radio, BET and MTV2’s frequent rotation. The group has gone the farthest yet to reach out to popular expectations, but without surrendering themselves wholesale to the music’s hottest producer. The Roots remain committed to the ideals that brought them together in high school, but they’re mature enough now to know compromise is sometimes a necessity for pioneers.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2008 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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