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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
The easy thing to do, then – especially during an era in which very few acts in any genre are selling tons of records – would have been to wrangle a couple dozen high-profile guest stars, come up with some radio-friendly beats, and go for the green. This had to be on fans’ minds when they heard “Birthday Girl,” the sunny, funny/creepy single the Roots recorded with Fall Out Boy vocalist Patrick Stump on the hook. After banging their heads against a commercial ceiling for the better part of a decade, they could hardly have been faulted for pulling a Black Eyed Peas, right?
Thankfully, that question remains moot. Rising Down isn’t as claustrophobic as Game Theory, but it’s no less of a punch to the solar plexus. As with their previous outing, the Roots have the weight of the world’s headlines on their shoulders, but where current events were more of a felt-but-not-heard backdrop before, Rising Down finds the band delving explicitly into politically conscious rap like never before. It should come as no surprise that they aren’t happy about the way things are, and their rage hangs heavy over these songs, pushing the listener relentlessly into one dark maelstrom of sound after another.
That description makes Rising Down sound like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, but where that album relied on a shockingly dense clatter to prove its points, the Roots take a more minimalistic approach, surrounding these rhymes with an atmosphere of heavy menace that derives its weight from the sort of controlled chaos that only comes from a band with a lot of miles under its belt. It’s an effective method of building tension – so effective, in fact, that a shotgun blast like “75 Bars,” which finds the always-underrated Black Thought purging nonstop for, well, 75 bars, is just as much of a relief as it is a statement of purpose.
For all that, though, Rising Down might ultimately be the Roots’ most accessible album yet; as unfriendly as the songs might be with regards to subject matter, they’re also uniformly gripping. Dumb skits and senseless cameos, the twin plagues of modern rap, are nowhere to be heard here; although the album opens and closes with spoken-word bits – they’re culled from recordings of heated phone conversations between the band and its old label – and although some famous names do drop in, they bring with them some of the album’s brightest moments. In fact, Mos Def’s guest spot on the title track is a career high point.
Of course, none of it sounds anything at all like the jokey, leering “Birthday Girl,” which is probably precisely why it was cut from the track listing before Rising Down was released (it does show up as a bonus track on the version being sold at iTunes, which is probably where most people are going to buy it – and the idea of an album’s “official” running order is rapidly losing its meaning anyway – but a bonus track is still just a bonus track, for now). The overlap between uncompromising art and viable commerce – especially in hip-hop – is dauntingly slim, but the Roots have speared it dead center here. If there’s any justice, Rising Down will be the crossover smash they’ve long threatened to produce – but then, if there was any justice, there wouldn’t be any need for albums like this one, would there?