Half Dead, Never Felt More Alive

What’s always confused me about The Roots is that, for all their instrumental chops, they generally play into a more traditional hip hop structure on the mid album energetic tracks – “Clones”, “Boom” – and then they let the live instrumentation breathe on the chill/emotive/love tracks near the end of the record. One would think that a live band would open up endless possibilities for intense music, and The Roots do tend to take advantage of that in the live setting. But on record they just fall back on the MPC more often than not. Rising Down is an attempt to amend that inconsistency and it frequently succeeds. Tracks like “75 Bars,” “Lost Desire” and the major standout “Get Busy” have a looser instrumental feel but are still pretty hoaaard, actually coming close to translating the energy of said live performances. That Kamaal has pretty much completely abandoned his trademark Rhodes piano in favor of Rick Rubin style old school synths (or at least facsimile thereof).[1] The electric piano is surely a beautiful instrument, but it’s generally best suited for more somber music. [2]

Though evolution doesn’t always work in their favor, the groups trajectory from neo-soul songstress choruses to indie rock moaning does a huge disservice to their sound. Some Jill Scott action would not sound bad in place of the forgettable wailer on “Criminal” or the titular “Whining Man.”

Much has been made about the dropping of “Birthday Girl” from this record and I’d like to think that self loathing internet bitches such as myself helped motivate that decision. However, if I were given one armchair A&R move on Rising Down, I would gladly take back “Birthday Girl” and swap out weed carriers Truck North and P.O.R.N. for a few more verses from once full time members Malik B and Dice Raw. Truck & P.O.R.N. are serviceable rappers, but are beyond outclassed here. There is so much unrefined talent in Philly that it’s confusing as to why exactly The Roots decided to run with these two. Maybe they’re Hub’s nephews or something. Malik and Dice on the other hand are a welcome addition on the few cuts they contribute to. Malik especially on “I Can’t Help It,” where he aggressively airs out his personal demons, supposedly in response to Phrenology‘s “Water.” “My mother had an abortion for the wrong child.” Oof. Dice & Malik bring some much needed depth of character to the group. It’s almost cliche to say it at this point, but Black Thought, for better worse, is a really insular rapper. The Roots themselves seem conscious of his weaknesses and try to accommodate with cameos and mo’ cameos. The run down: Mos Def and Kweli both deliver pretty solid verses. I didn’t notice Saigon at all. Peedi steals the show. Styles P is in (probably unintentionally) hilarious conscious rap mode. Common needs to quit. You get the feeling that the rapping is just there to fill a space. This is a producers album.

[1] Can Juno klangs be far off!?
[2] It’s also become something of a cliche not only for The Roots but the many Faux-Roots bands that hold down Thursday Night Boho Happy Hours and and All Day Freshmen Orientation Jams in every major city. I can’t remember the last time I heard a ‘live hip hop band’ that didn’t sound like The Roots circa 1994.

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  • gerard

    as a fan of the roots, i always felt that black thought was just another piece in the group and never the chief mc, he was the ying and malik b and dice raw were the yang (or the other way around). i feel that the roots more often than not (even if they deny it), try and showcase the real talent they have as musicians and performers on their live shows more than on their records.in the end, i feel that they can never couple the energy and excitement they have @ their shows in an actual record, but i think thats what they want

  • http://www.dirtydesign.net just wonderin?

    what was that last track? fela?

  • DC

    Black Thought is by far the most consistent component of the Roots. As ?uestlove takes the music in all sorts of odd directions, Tariq still rips on any shitty beat he’s given. To say that he is an insular rapper is just off the mark. Sure the focus of the last few albums has been political (which he does well), but tracks like Baby, Atonement, Long Time, and even Birthday Girl prove he can successfully switch up his flow and topical range . Not to mention, he emcees (in every sense of the word) the greatest live show in music. No other rapper could ever come close to his stage presence or showmanship. Without Black Thought, The Roots would just be another marginal hip hop band backing up every rapper who thinks having a live band elevates their art form. The guy is top 5 dead or alive, but just needs a traditional solo album so his skills aren’t overshadowed be ?uestlove’s ego.

  • Detroit P

    If there Live shows are better why dont they do a Live Album?…or have they done that already?

  • rkm

    They do have a live album, from 1999 or so, “The Roots Come Alive.” I kind of lost faith in these guys when a strong rap performance by Thought on Phrenology was killed by 3-4 minutes of noise added to the end of each song, and Tipping Point was too short, Game Theory too dark. But I saw them live for the first time in maybe five or six years last week, and the new stuff sounded incredible. I think this album will be a good return to form.
    As for whether Thought can spit, I’m sick of that question. Why does his rap have to always be “about something” but so many others get a pass?

    • http://haterplayer.blogspot.com/ fakerthanfake

      Even when his raps are about nothing but just braggadocio, Thought’s rhymes just aren’t as tight as they used to be. He’s lost that Rakim-esque mystique he used to have.

  • Kingston

    Damn.. That song at the top is real smooth.. Can anyone put a name on it?

  • Dan99

    This was a great album 4.5/5. I don’t know why you’re getting at common, he’s a great rapper.

  • Casey

    “It’s almost cliche to say it at this point, but Black Thought, for better worse, is a really insular rapper. The Roots themselves seem conscious of his weaknesses and try to accommodate with cameos and mo’ cameos.”

    Are you fucking serious?

  • http://www.cocaineblunts.com/ noz

    First song is Euro bonus track “The Grand Return” second is Fela “Mr. Grammarticalogylisatitionalism.”

  • b-ease

    I agree with prety much everything written.

    If I would have told you in 2002 that Peedi Crack would have the standout performances on two consecutive Roots albums, you wouldnt have dignified that with a response.

    Fallback>90% of rap songs ever made

  • erge

    Noz, I highly recommend you check out the live hip-hop band Dujeous. Being the rap nerd you are, I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of them. They’ve been rocking around NYC on and off since before the Roots even hit the national scene. Got some play on WKCR, WNYU, etc., released a few 12-inches, got Unsigned Hype in the Sauce, and so on. Anyway, they’re light on the rhodes, have three MCs with skill and a sense of humor, and in the end don’t really sound much like the Roots at all. Check em: http://www.myspace.com/dujeous

  • http://smokingsection.rawkus.com/ M.Z

    Noz – you hit it on the head. I give truck north a semi pass because of his verse on criminal, but P.O.R.N is a no-go. Especially with Malik/Dice back in the fold.

  • http://rosenbergradio.com bsidewinzagain

    Why did this album put me in a bad mood this morning? I liked what I heard, but for some reason it pissed me off. Maybe it was those electric pianos.

  • http://2020.mypodcast.com Rob

    Some good comment Noz.

    Regarding live hip-hop bands sounding like 1994-era Roots, I refer you to Tumi and the Volume. They’re a South African hip-hop band who actually dropped a live album as their debut, back in ’03. It’s called Live at the Bassline and is still considered one of the finest African hip-hop albums ever released. They owe a lot more to slam poetry and to Native Tongues than they do to the Roots, and there is a much more unusual, jazz-driven sound in there.

  • icon

    “Rising Down” is dope…you gotta expect the Roots to keep pushing the envelope, and trying to broaden their sound…they’re more a band than a hip hop act, for real, for real, and since the hip hop audience really isn’t supporting them like they should (downloading doesn’t count”, they have to try to draw and retain the interest of paying customers…and Black Thought is slept on, in my opinion, but regardless of whether that’s true or not, he’s central to the Roots—we really don’t want to see them do some Main Source type move, and try to replace their frontman with some unknown, marginally talented clown…

  • bongolock

    common needs to quit?

    please elaborate…..
    otherwise i’m pretty much right there wit ya

  • Adrian

    Birthday Girl is on my copy and no its not listed as a bonus track, although the track does appear somewhere near the end. Wierd I thought it was to be left off. I like this much better than Game Theory which I thought was ruined by all the filler at the start and finish. Id like to see a Roots album that just starts with a decent tune not all that pretentious shit, just Black thought rippin it straight out the gate.