"Better dead bolt the door, it aint safe no more" raps Black Thought on this, the tenth LP from the Phily heavyweights, and he's clearly referring to the new world we now find our selves inhabiting but his words could easily be seen as a warning cry to all other crews because Rising Down will demolish the competition. It's a foreboding record that tells of a growing unrest in America but does it with intelligent vision that, instead of sounding preaching, gathers us all behind it and commences its march on the system. The Roots have tirelessly crafted intelligent hip hop but this record manages to steer clear of the overly serious work that crops up in this genre. Rising Down is serious as fuck but it seems necessary, sincere and dangerously capable of making a difference. In mainstream hip hop there seems to be a limited number of routes out of the mothership. There's the dick-swinging/thugged out route favored by the likes of Fiddy, the "I shop so much I can speak Italian" bling rhymes of Kanye or the well trodden and yet important route of the political, championed by Chuck and the boys. The Roots have never really made their choice, choosing to keep their options open, so Rising Down sees them take a step nearer their choice. With some expertly employed guest vocals from the likes of Mos Def, P.O.R.N., Talib Kweli and Common each song plays out like a cross section of deep civil unrest. But aside from the guests this and every Roots album is about Black Thought. His relentless delivery adds the weight to this sound and as he flows over ?uestlove's flawless percussion you really want to listen.
Mos Def is given the mighty honor to open this record and he does so with style over a deep drum beat that simmers to a guitar sample that Shadow just wishes he made. Black Thought backs him up with his signature intensity "Everything's for sale, even souls, someone get God on the phone," sounds the chorus before Styles P flows off the back of Black Thoughts vocals perfectly. As an opener this song establishes the tone quickly. The guest vocals provide a varied platform for its darkly twilight drizzle and it has to be a strong contender for the best song this group has made. Get Busy storms in with raw drum beats and Black Thought's angry growls stabbing from the depths while 75 Bars (Black's Reconstruction) sees his lightning tongue rattle off lyrics like a gatling gun. Besides the intro these first three full songs come as a set and lead you deep into the heart of the record before you have time to worry if it's any good or not. They're the united front and they're impenetrably solid.
The two elements that make this record shine is its use of guest rappers and The Roots penchant for live instrumentation. Hip hop's been around for a while and you'd think by now that any keen follower would have heard his fair share of dope beats but with every release - and particularly this one - The Roots manage to craft such well rounded head-nodding perfection. I Will Not Apologize unites both these strengths and sees P.O.R.N. and Dice Raw rhyme over the sickest, most sleezy beat that bumps lightly around their perfectly crafted flows. It's like a mission statement read out on a relentless protest march with the guest's awkward style of flow complementing brilliantly that of Black Thought's. Criminal and Singing Man take a smoother approach but the effect is the same, accompanied by a more melodic structure they turn down the heat but continue to pile on layer after layer of simmering anger most frighteningly seen on Singing Man where Truck North assumes the role of a suicide bomber.
With the help of Wale and Chrisette Michele the penultimate track Rising Up seems to be the after party for those who stayed behind after the protest. It's a clever antidote to opener Rising Down and features such rhyme nuggets as Wale's "good rappers aint eatin', they Olsen twinnin'." Had it finished the album Rising Up would leave the listener with a profound sense of optimism for the future and the possibility of change. As it happens the upbeat Birthday Girl closes things and serves as the only misplaced step on this otherwise flawless record. The political route has often been on their map but The Roots have never strived to be Public Enemy often leaning heavily on a more soul-infused sound that provides their records with a rich variety of intensity and light relief. Rising Down opts for this variety a lot less than its predecessors and so the inclusion of the jaunty sing-along closer really dilutes their message here, thinning out the album. But like a fine wine this album, though tapering out at the edges, provides serious body throughout.