Review Summary: Dark, dense and paranoid, Rising Down is surprisingly better for it.
For 15 years the Roots have been a force. They’ve shifted, progressed, regressed, revolutionized and prophesized all the while making highly renowned, transcendent hip-hop. Rising Down
is their 8th album, and to expect anything less than a solid affair would be unfair given the band’s heralded return to form Game Theory
, which quickly made amnesiacs out of anyone who gave The Tipping Point
a chance. But Game Theory
was more than a return to form, quality-wise, but it was also a transitory record, hinting at (but not entirely touching on) a moodier sound. Their once free-flowing, borderline structure-less jams had been mostly replaced by their newly perfected ability to craft great songs, something they’d touched on at times with Phrenology
and even on the disposable The Tipping Point
. Passing a disposable intro, Rising Down
makes no qualms about establishing its mood. The album is dark, dense and paranoid; the question is, is it better for it?
It took more than a few listens for me to really ‘get’ this album. While it’s more structurally constant than past outings, the album is sonically dense. As a result, first impressions are often nothing more than assumptions; I personally assumed that the album quickly stagnated and never recovered. It was with subsequent listens that the albums variety, as subtle as it may seem, became apparent. Once the album clicks, it sticks. Accompanying the darkly urgent lyrics on the album is a sound that finds itself between two sides. The rhythm section continues its reign as one of the strongest in the business, but there’s a notable separation in style between the bass and drums, with the former feeling fatter and more digitized than ever with ?uestlove’s kit exuding the energy and youthfulness of their earlier work. Rising Down
essentially mixes past, present and future. To give you an idea, imagine flashes of Deltron 3030, Clipse, Outkast and A Tribe Called Quest all executed to a tea by accomplished and diversely trained musicians. It’s this mix that catches the listener off guard, and admittedly had me casting the album aside before I really gave it a chance. The contrast is undistinguished at times and can occasionally the welded aesthetic is a lot to take in, regardless of each song’s relatively straightforward structure. As an aside, the album is not without its instant hits. “Rising Down” is a marvel, probably the peak of their sound and certainly one of the strongest songs they’ve ever written, mixing what can only be described as “booty bass” with an old school backdrop, topped off with a post-9/11 sense of urgency and tied together with tingly guitar work and breathy-cries. “Criminal” is Rising Down
’s answer to “Seed 2.0”, a sing-song-y, guitar-driven number that somehow effectively pairs Truck North’s lethargic singing with Saigon’s aggressive flow.
The album’s pluses also hold it back. Rising Down
was described by ?uestlove as the Roots’ "most incendiary, political album […] to date," and while this is true, the anxious and paranoid mood that carries throughout the album dares to make Rising Down
a highly impersonal affair. Black Thought continues to be an unassuming front man and the sheer number of guests on can be at times overbearing, making the album feel almost as if it was recorded instrumentally with the vocalists and emcees joining in as an after-thought (a criticism you could pin against previous Roots albums as well). Conversely, Rising Down
is relatively communal, featuring a cast made up of perennial guest Dice Raw, former member Malik B. alongside some of their Soulquarian brethren (Mos Def, Common and Talib Kweli). Once again, this benefits as much as it detracts; the urgency and strong political implications being covered on the album are perhaps lessened to what sometimes feels like a bunch of buddies having fun in the studio, separating themselves at times from the darker-tones in the music.
When I first heard this album, I was mostly disappointed. I was still in denial, yearning for the free-flowing, playful cuts found on Do You Want More?!!!??!
, but once I really sat down and listened I let the music take over. It didn’t hurt that I realized Do You Want More?!!!??!
came out in 1995. The fervency is a hard pill to swallow at first but “Rising Up” is a welcomed anti-thesis that lets me know the Roots can still have a little fun. With “75 Bars” being the only real dud on the album, Rising Down
proves to be more of a collection of songs that work together as a whole than one cohesive album. It takes a little more focus to appreciate than you’d expect, but once it clicks, it clicks. At first, you may want to pass it off as a disappointment –I know I certainly did. But give it the chance and you’ll be rewarded.