On April 29, the Roots will unveil Rising Down — the latest step in the six-member Philadelphia hip-hop band’s 15-year evolution on record. The darkly funky, politically charged project is now almost done after more than a year of recording, though it is currently missing contributions from planned guest artists Common, Lupe Fiasco, and Q-Tip.
Earlier this week, EW stopped by the Manhattan studio where rapper Tariq ”Black Thought” Trotter, 35, and drummer/producer Ahmir ”?uestlove” Thompson, 37, are working on some final touches, and scored an early listen to the still unsequenced 12-track set.
”RISING DOWN” (possible alternate title: ”Humdrum”) Guest rappers Mos Def and Styles P join Trotter in unleashing a slew of dystopian imagery over heavy, atmospheric synths. ”It’s not an intro, but more an introduction to the topical theme of the album,” Trotter says. ”Mos kicks it off from one perspective. My verse is about global warming and how the world is all haywire. And Styles P is rapping about prescription-drug campaigns, the stuff they advertise on TV, all the crazy side effects. We’re all dealing with different aspects of the state of the world.”
”GET BUSY” It’s a Philly celebration, with verses from longtime protégé Dice Raw (”kinda like W.E.B. DuBois/Meets Heavy D and the Boys”) and more recent associate Peedi Peedi as well as scratches from DJ Jazzy Jeff. The beat’s driven by an aggressive, grinding bassline. ”That’s the return of the boom-bap,” says Trotter. ”We’re revisiting golden-era East Coast hip-hop, but the synthesizers make it modern.” Adds an oracular Thompson: ”What was 20 years ago is also tomorrow.”
”BLACK’S RECONSTRUCTION” Trotter raps for 75 bars straight on this lyrical exercise, spitting effortless game (”Smooth like the dude Sean Connery was playing”) over a dirty drumbeat and foghorn-like tuba moans. ”It was a first take,” notes Trotter. (Show-off!) ”That’s a song in the tradition of ‘Web’ and ‘Thought @ Work’. It’s become something that die-hard fans check for, that extended freestyle, minimal chorus, hard-hitting lyrical joint.”
”APOLOGIZE” Thompson calls this rhythmic, brass-laced cut (also featuring Dice Raw) a tribute to late Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti. Trotter’s lyrics examine the challenges of today’s music industry: ”Look into my daughter’s eyes/Wonder, how can I provide?” ”It’s about not apologizing for what you are,” Thompson elaborates. ”Dice Raw’s verse does his commentary on how the new minstrel image of black people is in vogue now — how 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.”
”CRIMINAL” (possible alternate title: ”Pay the Bills”) A simmering meditation on street life, still awaiting a guest verse from Saigon. ”It’s about being persecuted and having no other alternative,” Trotter says. ”You could also see it from the angle of the Rockefeller laws,” adds Thompson, ”certain groups of people get persecuted and others get away with it.” Chuckling sardonically, Trotter concludes: ”That [song] is a light-hearted one! It’s a happy album…”
”I CAN’T HELP IT” Trotter says this harrowing tale of addiction, bustling with keyboard burbles and ethereal background vocals, is about ”giving in or not giving in to your urges.” ”I can’t help it/Maybe I’m selfish,” he raps. ”The way I’m running is becoming a health risk/I might have a heart attack, I’m taking more pills than Elvis.”
NEXT PAGE: Six more tracks, including collaborations with Talib Kweli, Common (he promised!), and Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump
”SINGER MAN” Two little-known guest rappers chime in on this unsettling multipart suite, which segues from a spare bass drone to a backmasked, drumless ambient section. ”That’s three different first-person accounts of people that felt justifiable violence,” says Thompson. Trotter raps in the voice of ”an African child soldier fighting for Charles Taylor in Sierra Leone”; Truck North takes on the role of a suicide bomber; and the very unfortunately named emcee Porn explores the perspective of a school shooter.
”UP THERE” ”It was a cold night/Not cold like the winter, but I can feel an energy in the air that I don’t like”: Another claustrophobic narrative, backed by melting synths and an eerie vocal loop. Trotter compares its steady crescendo to 1996’s ”Panic”. ”It’s a dream sequence. Some person is driving me through this place where I see my life, like a drive-in movie. Then the guy disappears, and I’m being carjacked. It’s one of those things like the ‘You Got Me’ video, where [the plot is] left wide open — it’s in the eye of the beholder.”
”LOST DESIRE” Urgent verses from Talib Kweli (who shouts out his new project Idle Warship) and former Roots member Malik B anchor another look at contemporary social ills: ”No one cares what the truth is/It’s a fortress built on lies,” goes the hook. ”Malik and I are always the yin and yang of Philadelphia,” says Trotter. ”He represents the street, that accurate commentary, and I’m kind of the polar opposite of that. So we balance each other out on the song, and Kweli’s in the middle, talking about what goes on in Brooklyn.”
”THE SHOW MUST GO ON” Cascading drums and a serrated synth texture set off the song that Common is expected to appear on. (”He promised his left arm if he doesn’t get us his verse!” kids Thompson.) ”It’s about where we are at this point in our career, why we do it — a more introspective, personal type of joint,” says Trotter. ”I’m saying some fly s— on that song. I like those verses, boy!”
”RISING UP” The title track’s counterpart has a far lighter tone, courtesy of two fresh-faced guests: soulful songbird Chrisette Michele and much-buzzed-about Washington, D.C., rapper Wale. ”Where ‘Rising Down’ is one of the darker moments of the album, ‘Rising Up’ is the beacon of hope,” says Trotter, who boasts on the song’s hook that he’s ”getting paper like John Travolta.” The track’s beat calls to mind the polyrhythmic pulse of Washington’s go-go scene — an unexpectedly touchy subject, it turns out. ”It’s more percussive than your average Roots song,” Trotter continues with a grin. ”But Wale, who’s a die-hard 23-year-old D.C. native, just refuses to accept that as go-go in any way, shape or form: ‘What?! Oh, that ain’t no go-go jam!’ So it’s our attempt at something quasi go-go-esque.”
”BIRTHDAY GIRL” Summery guitar chords and an ultra-catchy hook sung by Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump have made this the leading contender for Rising Down‘s first single. It’s a pleasant breeze of a song — at least until you notice the vaguely creepy lyrics, in which Stump and Trotter fondly address an adoring female fan on the occasion of her 18th birthday. ”It’s based on experiences that we all go through today, as musicians and as parents,” Trotter says. ”It deals with what our daughters are exposed to, the effects of My Super Sweet 16, reality TV, all this crazy s—.” Thompson, however, laughs off the song as a hip-hop Lolita: ”It’s the most beautiful statutory rape song ever!”