I have been searching for a word to describe The Roots’ new album, Rising Down, that doesn’t descend into the black equals evil, white equals good mantra. Unfortunately, I can’t—this is one dark album.
The cover art is a tip off. A black-winged demon, rendered in nineteenth century woodblock style, swoops down from the hills to snatch townspeople in its claws. You know you’re not in Kansas anymore.
The opening cut, “The Pow Wow” puts listeners in the middle of a decades-old phone call. An agitated Black Thought and ?estlove [sic] engage in a heated screaming match ending with Black Thought threatening to quit the group.
You’re left hanging by a thread, until the album segues into the nerve-wracking “Rising Down.” Mos Def spits first with rapid-fire intensity, but the song is really set off by the haunting chorus of Dice Raw, who has matured from the boasts of a tenth-grade battle cat to creating realistic, thought-out rhymes.
You don’t see that something’s wrong/ Earth’s spinning outta control (hello, hello, hello, hello)/ Everything’s for sale, even souls/ Someone get God on the phone (hello, hello, hello, hello).
The album is a treatise on society’s failures: of inept safety nets, of crooked cops and self-dealing politicians, of families and individuals unfortified and unable to see their way off the corner. It’s angry, unapologetic music that looks hard at the factors contributing to hopeless young black men. “Criminal,” a surprisingly summery acoustic melody with Truck North’s bleak lyrics, lays it out:
Who lookin’ for a chair and some real strong rope/ Just to end it all here
Screamin’ “f*** the mayor”/ He see the faces at the bottom of the welfare
They act like I’m somethin’ to fear/ Trapped in urban warfare…
Try to make fast money last long some years/ Try to laugh it off, still couldn't lose the tears/ To the rules, I will not adhere/ Break the law, yeah…
“Singing Man” cracks the mind of a “terror that the world has never known existed, left so many clues it’s a wonder that y’all missed it.” Here we discover a child soldier, grown into an everyday psychopath, who finds comfort in killing.
Aside from the anvil-heavy subject matter, the music on Rising Down is fantastic; atmospheric and brooding or buzzed-out and hyperkinetic, the beats add texture and context and functions as another character alongside the rappers. The Roots, as a group, never lets you forget it is a true band. Although this album has more electronic synth and lacks some of the live vibe of past releases, the songs’ musicality stands alone.
Black Thought, who grew up in South Philly and lost both parents to separate murders, has become increasingly political and nihilistic. That’s not to say he’s not good—to the contrary, he’s one of the top rappers in the game, and has made considerable strides without compromising his image or his art. But Rising Down’s unrelenting pathological focus on bare truth weighs on you. It is the best Roots album since Illadelph Halflife.
But it could have used a little more light.