Seems odd now, to me, that a mere 15 years on since their debut, this amazing band seems to still have to justify its artistic originality and be judged by other hip hop acts' standards, as they are more and more unique and without fearing serious contenders in their category. Category ? Well, that could even sound weird or irrelevant in the case of The Roots, who've been through proto-Acid Jazz meanderings ("Do You Want More ?"), hip-hop live fusion of the highest order ("Illadelph Life", "Things Fall Apart"), experimentations whose limit could only be the sky ("Phrenology"), classic club cuts redefining dancefloor ("The Tipping Point") and wry, darker, commentary on the sour moods of our times in the shape of their last record, 2006's "Game Theory".
That last album, oddly enough once again, was their Def Jam debut, and A&R man Jay Z seemed to have allowed them maximum freedom, as they both never sounded so relaxed AND unafraid to push further the boundaries of their extraordinary musicianship and inventiveness. Now comes "Rising Down", their 8th studio release proper, and the title itself sums perfectly the whole spirit of that follow-up; after having sampled Radiohead and took a much darker direction both lyrically and sonically, The Roots have at last found a niche where they are both at home and rewardingly creative like they've never been before.
Its starts off with an explosive intro consisting in a one-minute angry argument over a phone conference followed by 2 of their harder grooves to date; the desolated title track, featuring the great underrated Mos Def, and "Get Busy", all saturated drums and pulsating bass. One could have thought that signing to Def Jam would have The Roots slightly more preoccupied by chart success, but for the second time, they're challenging the trust put upon them by squeezing all cliches expected from a hip hop act in their situation. Hell, "Criminal" even sounds like the artful american trio Blonde Redhead (albeit on a very happy day...).
Guest featurings have always been the cherries on their cake, and this time around there are plenty of them, and stars at that (aforementioned Mos Def, but also Talib Kweli or Common). But, as on "Game Theory", its the new generation that takes the mic to devastating effect; when Porn delivers the line "My mother's had an abortion with the wrong child" on the martial "I Can't Help It", you can feel the anger roaring out of your speakers (although I strongly advise anyone to hear this CD on headphones, to fully appreciate its abrasive sonic scape).
Main men Black Thought and drummer Ahmir ?love Thomson are in high gear, too; the first grabbing the mike like he's been deprived from it for years, and the latter pushes even further his incredible talent in rhythm and style over drumbeats that could fulfill some of The Roots' peers for entire careers.
Anyhow, "Rising Down", at least in the music, ends on a lighter note in its last two tracks; the aptly-titled "Rising Up", featuring the promising Chrisette Michele sounds like a twisted "You Got Me" (still their biggest hit to date) and the pop slab "Birthday Girl" (strangely missing on the US import I saw in shops in my country), featuring a great chorus courtesy of Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump, could well be provide the chart success they so largely deserve without even faintly attempting.
Such a creative bunch of people should at least get the credit for appearing so unaware of the ambivalent state their playground genre's creativity's been through for the last decade (even Vampire Queen Madonna's worked with confirmed hip hop craftmen on her last effort. No offense, but that just showcases where the genre's at, at the forefront of the mainstream). On "Rising Down", they both recall us what hip hop was all about in the first place, while painting once again a fascinating musical puzzle to illustrate their own personnality.
The late and great Jacques Yves Cousteau once said "When you've got an extraordinary life, you've got to share it". The same can be said to describe how this band's legacy should be appreciated by the buying public.
'Nuff said, now enjoy.