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Half Dead, Never Felt More Alive

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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.

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[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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