The Roots’ Rising Down: Serious Hip-hop for Serious Times

On the night of April 28th, the Roots took the stage on The Late Show with David Letterman dressed almost entirely in black. They wore t-shirts and pins denouncing the recent verdict in the Sean Bell case. It was an act of protest that eerily pointed out how few things have really changed in the “post-civil rights” era. The next day, the Roots’ tenth album Rising Down was released on the sixteenth anniversary of the Rodney King verdict.

Rising Down does indeed fit the chaotic and frustrating times we live in. It is sonically dense, often dark and atmospheric, emotionally fraught and confrontational. And the lyrics? Well, the subject matter isn’t exactly light. On the contrary, it is hard-hitting, unflinching, and serious as a heart attack. The group waste no time setting the album’s tone on the opening title-track, employing steady-flowing drums and a simmering guitar-line as MC Black Thought, along with guests Mos Def and Styles P, take on the wealth gap, urban racism and global warming:

Between the greenhouse gases and earth spinning off its axis
Got Mother Nature doing back flips, the natural disasters
Its like 80 degrees in Alaska, you in trouble if you not an Onassis
It ain’t hard to tell that the conditions is drastic
Just turn on the telly check for the news flashin’

The Roots have long represented the leading edge of “conscious” hip-hop. In fact, Rising Down seems to be almost a gathering of some of hip-hop’s most political artists, from Common and Saigon to Mos Def and Talib Kweli. According to drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson Rising Down is “probably our most political album to date dealing with addiction, nihilism, hypocritical double standards in the prison system and overall life in Philadelphia.”

While the group’s hometown of Philly plays a central role on many tracks, the sheer scope of issues taken on means these stories could be about almost anywhere in America and even the world at-large. The track “Criminal” puts the very term on its head, telling a story of being forced into a world of violence by powers bigger than yourself. In a recent interview, Black Thought described the song’s message: ”It’s about being persecuted and having no other alternative.” ”You could also see it from the angle of the Rockefeller [anti-drug] laws,” adds ?uestlove, ”certain groups of people get persecuted and others get away with it.”

The same repression and violence surrounds this album’s much more unsettling stories. The subjects of “The Singer” are, in order, an American school shooter, African child soldier and suicide bomber in Iraq. The track is at some points disturbing, but its utter frankness and willingness to get inside the heads of the alienated and oppressed make it hard to disagree with.

Moments like these have lead some in the music press to label Rising Down a downer. Most reviews understandably have focused on the album’s harsh soundscapes and brutal honesty. Rolling Stone criticized Black Thought’s lyrics as being “so terminally stern that even his jokes sound like harangues.” Then again, the Roots have never really given much credence to what outside forces have to say about them, including the music industry. In rap, a genre constantly painted into a corner, this is not easy. “[T]he new minstrel image of black people is in vogue now,” says Black Thought, “that’s the image that’s being sold to you. It’s really hard to hold on to your dignity and not resort to shucking and jiving to sell records.” This is taken up on “I Will Not Apologize,” a proudly defiant track that refuses to back down from one’s artistic principles. The track is also one of the album’s most eclectic and catchy songs, relying heavily on contributions from Talib Kweli and samples from Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti.

What most reviews miss is that by unabashedly portraying life as it is, Rising Down raises the possibility of something better. Positioned close to the end of the album, with its buzzy synthesizers and snare-rolls, “The Show” (featuring Common and Dice Raw) is positively militant in its sense that another world isn’t just possible but necessary:

They got hopes and plans of gettin’ rid of me
I’ll hit ’em like Ethiopia hit up Italy
Swift as the bullet that killed King and Kennedy
You know the battle is on for infinity

For the Roots to maintain this kind of uncompromising outlook, even strengthen it, in this kind of political climate had undoubtedly been a challenge. In an interview with Vanity Fair, ?uestlove recently ruminated on the demoralization that many politically conscious artists (especially of color) have taken through the hard-knocks of the Bush administration: “It’s just a numbing period for artists left-of-center. Why did it take Erykah [Badu] eight years to do a follow-up record? Why haven’t you heard from [Rage Against the Machine’s] Zack de la Rocha? D’Angelo? Lauryn Hill? Bilal? All the left-of-center, politically charged minority artists–Dave Chappelle included–like, what happened?”

The Roots, like many others in the hip-hop community, have thrown their lot in with the Obama camp recently. How much faith the group has in the Illinois senator is unclear, but listening to the lyrics one gets the feeling they would like to see something a lot more fundamental than Obama is capable of. Despite all the talk of this album being a po-faced lecture to a world that doesn’t get it, Rising Down delivers a lot more truth and hope than you possibly could from anything on the campaign trail.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at Read other articles by Alexander.

17 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Annie said on May 16th, 2008 at 7:00am #

    Thanks for the review, I’ll definately purchase the album.

  2. hp said on May 16th, 2008 at 10:20am #

    The cycle continues..

  3. evie said on May 16th, 2008 at 1:12pm #

    you made me chuckle.

  4. D.R. Munro said on May 16th, 2008 at 1:54pm #

    Yeah, those lyrics look brilliant. . .

    I’ll watch CNN for a half-hour, scribble something that slighty resembles the English language into a notebook, and speak it to you.

    Review me?

    Oh, and then I can go and pretend to be political on Letterman to sell albums. Also, the album was released by Universal Music Group imprint Def Jam.

    Cha Ching.

  5. evie said on May 16th, 2008 at 2:24pm #

    Shhhhh, someone might think you’re ignorant and even racist with that comment about English. 🙂

    Oh my, help, is this black culture or the oppressor’s economics – or just bad music, all of the above?

  6. Don Hawkins said on May 16th, 2008 at 5:24pm #

    Joe Biden said yesterday that what Bush said in Israel his speech was bullshit. On CNN Wolf said they could not say the word. On NBC Brian said he could not use the word and so the bullshit continues. No no no.

  7. Don Hawkins said on May 16th, 2008 at 6:44pm #

    You know the more I think about this I see the reasoning why CNN or NBC couldn’t use the word Joe Biden used to explain parts of Bush’s speech. The word bullshit to say that on TV to the American people and the harm it could do probably can’t even be measured. Now I have found if you use a word enough it seems to lose it’s meaning so bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit there you see just bullshit.

  8. D.R. Munro said on May 16th, 2008 at 7:02pm #

    I think it is pretty simple:

    If you release on a major label, if you work with a major producer, and if you appear on corporate shows such as Letterman – you are nothing but a corporate shill in rebels clothes.

    There is nothing unique about them, there is nothing insightful in the lyrics (are we still talking about Italy and Ethiopia? Really?), and there is nothing progressive in their existence.

    Talk is cheap. In fact, I am doing it right now.

    So, Evie, I would say that it is two of the above. I’ve spent much time witnessing real black culture (the kind that doesn’t involve a record deal), and it is very vibrant. Hell, there is even a lively black Jazz scene here in the Boston area.

  9. evie said on May 16th, 2008 at 8:00pm #

    I’ve an old friend who plays jazz, but I prefer music like Barbara Lynn.

  10. hp said on May 16th, 2008 at 8:10pm #

    Bush also said the Jews are the Chosen People of God.
    Right after Einstein’s letter was released saying ‘bullshit’ to that.
    Gives new meaning to the phrase ”he’s no Einstein.”

  11. hp said on May 16th, 2008 at 8:12pm #

    D. R. I lived for a summer on Brookline St..
    Don’t ask me.. too long ago.

  12. Don Hawkins said on May 17th, 2008 at 4:57am #

    If Einstein could come back and see today’s World the first word he might use is “Yikes”.

  13. Adu Paako said on May 17th, 2008 at 1:18pm #

    DR, what’s wrong with you?

    Why would having a knowledge of history (i.e. Ethiopia’s victory at Adowa) be a bad thing? Moreover, critiquing the world we live in today does not mean that a person should abandon all contact with it. Surely you can see that it is possible to earn a living and yet say that over consumption is causing global warming and that the African American community is marginalised, without being a hypocrite. You should address their argument rather than throwing insults.

    Talk is cheap, sure. But it is also necessary. One essential part of social revolution is the spread of information. Roots do that wonderfully

    Finally, who are you to dictate or define what “real” black culture is?

  14. D.R. Munro said on May 18th, 2008 at 7:10pm #

    If you need a group of semi-illiterate rappers to “inform” you . . . you’re beyond help (or being of use) anyways.

  15. Buddy Toledo said on May 19th, 2008 at 5:16am #

    I don’t know if I’m the only one, but “I Will Not Apologize” is powerful for me right now, with Obama being required to apologize for knowing a preacher who is too angry and too black for the mainstream.

    I can’t think of a use for somebody who labels Black Thought as semi-illiterate.

  16. Alexander Billet said on May 19th, 2008 at 5:57am #

    DR, I have to agree with the rest that your POV on rap is intensely prejudiced and really undynamic. First, being on a major label does not guarantee “cha-ching” as you put it. Most artists are lucky if they get 15% of each album sale from their label, and many are still in debt to the label even after their second album. Appearing on Letterman or a nationally televised show is normally decided by the label. What sets the Roots apart is that they actually use their time to make a statement. Ask the tens of thousands of people who turned up to protest the Sean Bell verdict (or hell, ask Bell’s family) if they appreciated the statement the Roots made any less because it was on Letterman. I think you’ll find your bubble unpleasantly popped.

    Second, just calling them semi-literate because they use a large amount of slang and such is just plain wrong. I’m not going to disagree that there is a lot of sub-par hip-hop out there, but you’re determined to label them all ignorant. Exactly how much of the Roots’ music have you heard? Have you even bothered to listen to anything off this album?

  17. evie said on May 19th, 2008 at 5:33pm #

    Obama was not “required” to apologize for anything – if his apology is a lie then he’s a liar, but aren’t all pols? Wright is not too angry or too black for mainstream – it’s just that the angry black man slot has been filled with NOI/Farrakhan.

    This thread reminded of the poetry performed by Eddie Murphy:

    Dark and lonely on a summer’s night
    Kill my landlord
    Kill my landlord
    Watchdog barking
    Do he bite?
    Kill my landlord
    Kill my landlord
    Slip in his window
    Break his neck
    Then his house
    I start to wreck
    Got no reason
    What the heck
    Kill my Landlord
    Kill my landlord
    my l a n d l o r d.