The Roots’ once-jazzy urban hang suite has become a den of indignation. Kicking off the Philadelphia hip-hop band’s 10th CD is a snippet from a 1994 conference call with then label Geffen, in which rapper Black Thought goes apoplectic. This is the first of many bad vibes on Rising Down, which turns the downcast mood of 2006’s haunting Game Theory outward at the world at large, with gripes about drug laws, school shootings, conflict diamonds, and — that most alarming bellwether of our times — BET programming.
The repetitive loops of Down’s synth-heavy music match this claustrophobia, so the rhymes move front and center. That’s where Black Thought comes in. His social-ill invocations (”greenhouse gases and earth spinnin off its axis”) often come off like below-average civics reports, and his permafrown rapping never matches the exhilarating outrage of that phone call — he’s the Mr. Spock of frontmen. At times, the soundscapes of Down exploit that monotone: He shines on the unrelenting cadence of ”75 Bars” (a minimalist work by drummer-producer ?uestlove) and over the hypnotic Afrobeat guitars of ”I Will Not Apologize.” But cameos from Saigon (on ”Criminal”) and Peedi Peedi (”Get Busy”) highlight the value of emotional flux.
There are 40 minutes of venting before the listener is rewarded with ”Rising Up,” in which the Fender Rhodes jazzmatazz of earlier records segues into bell-rocking go-go. Entertainment and optimism: finally, a way out. B-
DOWNLOAD THIS: Hear the Roots’ ”Rising Up” at the Def Jam website