Philadelphia is probably most traditionally known as the home of the world-famous Philly cheese steak. It is also storied to have once been a home to historical landmarks and political figures, as well as very competitive sports teams with lifelong fans. Philadelphia can also be attributed as the backdrop of the 1976 classic motion picture Rocky, but as of late it is known in music circles as the Mecca of the Neo-soul movement, as evidenced by fledgling artists such as Musiq Soulchild, Jill Scott, and The Roots.
After more than a decade, and an equal amount of albums in the entertainment industry, The Roots–a live instrumentation rap group–have evolved into more than just an act driven by souped up snare kicks and raging guitar riffs. They are also a group encompassing conditioned synthesizer chords, glaring record samples, and stellar vocal performances. Far removed from when this group, consisting of interchanging band members, played swanky venues in and around its Philadelphia home mainly for the love of the art form, The Roots have become one of the most storied and biggest draws to hit live Hip-Hop. Although playing for Jay-z on his MTV Unplugged album, and spots backing artists like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Eryka Badu, this super group has never achieved unwavering success or (up to this point) great critical notoriety. In fact, The Roots have yet to achieve platinum status on any of their previously recorded nine albums.
It is said that when a person is faced with adversity and their back is placed against a wall, one of two things will happen: either they will succumb to the pressures and fold or they will fight themselves out of the adversity with an immeasurable amount of force. On this, their tenth album (Rising Down), The Roots ditched the old, mostly-jazz, radio friendly sound and formula for a more politically-fueled street version of their now signature sound. Rising Down is the band’s personal fight back from the corner of obscurity and against everything that is wrong in society, driven by the voice of the genre’s deepest front man.
The album’s first track, “The Pow Wow,” is a telephone conversation conducted between founding members Tarik “Black Thought” Trotter and Amir “?uestlove”” Thompson, along with their then management, discussing creative differences citing how the albums they’ve made and the group as a collective are not being promoted how they feel the record company should be. This track, demonstrating the group’s unwillingness to conform to industry standards, helps us to understand the pains The Roots have gone through and endured, making them into the musical icons they are today despite receiving minimal or no radio broadcasting and marginal chart performances.
With the help of Mos Def and Styles P, the album’s title track explores the issues of global warming and inner city violence and are tackled with Black Thought heading the pack speaking thought-provoking lines, “Between these greenhouse gasses and earth spinning off its axis / it’s got mother nature doing back flips.” Although critically ridiculed for his delivery and monotone approach, Thought showed that even as a teen he was able to effortlessly rhyme as witnessed by a freestyle recorded over 20 years ago on “@15,” the introduction to another one of this album’s stand out tracks “75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction).”
Overall Rising Down embodies the revolutionary feel of albums thirty years removed. Think Vietnam and you’ve got “The Show,” an introspective look at the current state of affairs in Iraq. “Fighting a war they didn’t pay me enough to join / behind a phrase they was crazy enough to coin.”
The only song on the whole album without the dark theme witnessed throughout the album is “Rising Up.” It showcases the signature sound that true Roots fans have grown accustomed to over the years, and offers a glimmer of hope that nullifies the issues bought up through out the course of the album. If hip hop is truly in choke hold, Rising Down truly offers a breath of fresh air needed for it to fight back and sustain its survival.