The Roots

Rising Down (Def Jam)

If the recent Smirnoff showcase in New York — at which Common, Q-Tip, and KRS-One disconcertingly sold their skills to the vodka company for some quick stacks — is any indication, the state of "conscious" rap is in serious flux right now. It seems to stand mostly for vague platitudes, but just because the genre's founding fathers have grown comfortable doesn't mean that poverty and despair in the black community have abated. For this reason the Roots' aggressive, disorienting Rising Down feels timely and urgent. A meditation on violence inspired by and named for William T. Vollmann's seven-volume book Rising Up and Rising Down, its tone is summarized by Black Thought's announcement that he's "on some bomb threat in the mail shit" on "I Can't Help It." But he isn't the only one itching for a fight. Kamal's dirty, almost grating keys and ?uestlove's caustic drumming make for angry-feeling instrumentation that borders on unmelodic and always demands the listener's attention. While the album's energy flags in its second half and there are plenty of gratuitous guest appearances (including Common), overall Rising Down rivals the group's masterpiece Things Fall Apart in its freshness, complexity, and vitality.

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