Music Review: The Roots' Rising Down

by Jared McCoy
Special to iVoryTowerz

After the commercial failure of The Tipping Point, The Roots have moved more toward their original sound on their new release Rising Down, reminiscent of Things Fall Apart and Illadelph Half-Life. Or at least that’s what most reviewers would have fans believe since The Roots released Game Theory. This is a deceptive observation because it seems to imply that The Roots have simplified their songwriting somehow and devolved.

I can’t help but laugh a little to myself when people talk about how “dark” The Roots' newer albums sound. This is amusing mostly because the comment sounds like it seems to be describing race more than music. But it’s also strange because I would think The Roots newer albums would seem comparatively bright compared to the rock these commentators have just crawled out from under. Yes, of course, Rising Down sounds dark: The Roots have sounded “dark” (minor key, aeolian, using the Phrygian mode, what have you) since the day they banded together. But what exactly does "dark" mean? Does this buzzword really tell an interested reader anything new about the way The Roots sound? Of course not.

Like Game Theory, this new album demonstrates what I like to think of as the tasteful use of atmospheric samples and pads. What I mean by this is that behind the tracks and below the beats there are musical ideas that are rather dark and mysterious. These ideas seem to capture some psychological state of discord that’s hard to break down in words. Combined with The Roots’ heavy use of vocal soul, the overall texture seems to evoke something inexplicable and ephemeral in very much the same way Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew works within the genre of jazz. Perhaps this is a bad analogy because The Roots really aren’t that strung out. The jazzy textures of Rising Down really work more as a counterpoint to the direction and organization of the lyrical and rhythmic elements of the music.

Black Thought’s* flow seems to mature more and more every album. When I first heard him rap I couldn’t help but equate his intellectual monosyllabic cadences and refined tempo to Nas (full name: Nasir Jones) in his Illmatic days. I still think that Black Thought is unique in his ability to cultivate rhymes. However, these two rappers are strikingly similar when we start to break down the prosodic trends and stylings that comprise their flow. But I fear I must save my comparison of rap to poetry for another post.

Rising Down manages to balance commercially accessible hooks and artistic integrity better than some of The Roots' earlier albums. This is clear on songs like “I Can’t Help It,” which fuses an incredibly dry acoustic rhythm section with jazz influenced synthesizer flourishes over a catchy hook. “Get Busy” is a real attitude driven banger with a heavy synth foundation. I still don’t know what to make of the song “Birthday Girl” because it seems to stick out like a sore thumb against the other tracks. As a closing recommendation, definitely listen to to the title track of Rising Down, because it does something very interesting instrumentally with the crunchy drum hits, deep synth bass and atmospheric guitar.

*Black Thought's real name is Tariq Luqmaan Trotter.

(Photo of The Roots by Aaron Matthews of Ottawa, Canada via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License. The Roots continue their North American tour this Friday, May 2, at the Beale Street Music Festival in Memphis. To see the R-rated video for The Roots' "Get Busy," please check below.)

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