Under the mainstream radar, hip-hop group The Roots have, for nearly two decades, created songs with live instruments. Because live instruments are rare in hip-hop, the group’s technique makes T-Pain’s auto-tuned hooks and Kanye West’s tribal-sounding 808 drum sound amateur. Rising Down, The Roots’ most recent album, is infused with various horns, keyboards and synthesizers that bring life to lyrics. The acoustics drag listeners down into the dark depths of the group’s political agenda.
The Roots are six men from Philadelphia: Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter (vocals/lead MC), Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson (drums), Kamal Gray (keyboards), Kirk “Captain Kirk” Douglas (guitar), Frank Knuckles (percussion) and Owen Biddle (bass). Drummer ?uestlove wears a pick as an accessory for his voluminous Afro; Black Thought wears black sunglasses and baseball caps.
Together, the group is known for its raw political commentary and for securing its artistic creativity over the years. It has released nine albums prior to Rising Down. Fans of The Roots likely still bob their heads to “You Got Me,” the 1999 single featuring Erykah Badu and Eve, which earned the group its only Grammy to date.
Rawness, however, does not always prosper, and The Roots do not receive much mainstream attention. The group experiences the dilemma faced by many political artists in hip-hop: crafting conscious lyrics may limit the size of your audience. Yet while the lyrics are important, never have the members of The Roots created a song that can be enjoyed while disregarding the instruments. The band comes first, and lyrics follow behind. As a result, The Roots are displaced in a market dependent on hook-driven songs.
Rising Down’s descent begins with “The Pow Wow,” a short clip of an argument held between ?uestlove, Black Thought and former manager AJ Shine after the group was nearly dropped from their label. It’s hard to understand what’s going on, and musically the track serves no purpose. However, the argument does establish The Roots as a defiant group that is not going to give up – or give in – easily.
The title track proceeds to discuss a range of topics including identity crisis, global warming and pharmaceuticals. Guest rappers Styles P, Mos Def and Dice Raw deliver verses with sharp imagery and sincerity. Styles P says, “I’m an African American/they sell drugs in the hood, but the Man move the medicine-A little stuffy nose tell you get some Claritin.” The guest appearances on the track “Rising Down” set the tone for the rest of the album. A variety of artists, like Malik B, Peedi Crakk, P.O.R.N, Mercedez Martinez, Talib Kweli and Common, appear more than Black Thought himself. The effect, however, is unifying: guest artists and their messages are as important as The Roots themselves.
“Get Busy” echoes The Roots’ apprehension toward the politics that ensure the rich stay richer. “Pimp slap, pump that, give me that profit” is how Black Thought blatantly describes the relationship between the music industry and its artists. Tracks like “Criminal” discuss police targeting in a rough reality. Black Thought said, “If there’s a god, I don’t know if he listenin’, or what.”
The album has variety. “75 Bars” will bob heads with its snare drums. “Pow Wow 2” describes the group’s clash with their record label in detail. “Becoming Unwritten” features 31 seconds of instrumentals before Black Thought delivers just three bars. In contrast, “@ 15” is a 25-bar rap that speeds by in less than a minute with only a few discernable breaths. In this span, Black Thought establishes his skill as a “God-given utility.” Even conscious rappers are cocky, but for The Roots, the group’s confidence is about the effect its group has on their audience, rather than its money and sex appeal.
Rising Down may not appeal to listeners who are not familiar with The Roots. This is not to say that newcomers should not listen to the album at all – they should just keep an open mind. Black Thought is the antithesis of Lil Wayne, and to appreciate him, listeners should instead anticipate a mix of W.E.B. DuBois and rapper KRS One instead. The result will be rewarding. The group grabs listeners by the ears, making their audience unable to hear mainstream hip-hop the same way, and for the better.
With the buzz about The Roots’ performance at Spring Fling on April 19, lovers of hip-hop, poetry and acoustics alike will hopefully find something they enjoy. The Roots will not make butts shake, but they will make hearts beat to the rhythm of a boasting bass.