Two years ago, Americans elected the world’s most mild-mannered black man to be their president. While many regarded this as a pivotal moment in our history, ushering in the so-called post-racial era – a notion as mythical and wonderful as the lost continent of Atlantis – it’s actually exposed to sunlight some seething centuries-old resentments along with the racial insecurities and hypersensitivities of even the most well-meaning citizens. Among the many strange criticisms that have been leveled against the Obama Administration is President’s apparent lack of anger in the face of, say, the BP oil leak. Which is rich, given how much America loves itself some angry black men.
Right at the historical moment when it looked like Democrats were finally set to bank their electoral hopes on the junior Senator from Illinois, Philadelphia hip-hop band The Roots unleashed what is without question, the single angriest, blackest record of their career, Rising Down. If Barack Obama was starting to win over white voters on his unthreatening safeness, The Roots, who, of all hip hop groups, may very well have the whitest, “coolest” (no self-flattery intended), most politically engaged, and racially sensitive audience out there, came out with an album that virtually throws a forbidding “No Whites Allowed” sign at the gate to the pool and forces listeners to meet them in a figurative after-dark ghetto of confrontational words and images as complicated and conflicting as anything in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, in which the band featured.
With a cover depicting a winged black demon rising out of a plantation house hell-bent on gobbling up all the helpless little white people in the valley below, the record opens with some candid audio of rapper Black Thought going ballistic on a conference call with record executives in 1994. Though you can't hear what anybody’s saying, the message is immediately clear: We’re not on the same page, motherf*ckers. Though Black Thought has never shied away from the N word, he shoots it out in a series of machine-gun rhymes as immoderate as Rambo in the Vietnamese jungles in “75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction).” It’s a song that sets out on roughly the same mission as “Colored Spade” from the musical Hair, only backed up by an arsenal of modern sonic weaponry and actual black experience (Hair was written by two hippies and a Canadian – all white). As such, it’s a track that is virtually impossible for a guy like me – that is, a middle-aged white guy from the suburbs of a socially conscious Midwestern college town - to listen to.
Which, it seems, is sorta the point. Because even though the record, for all its stark, live beats and harrowing atmospherics – the ghostly cemetery whispers of “Rising Down”, the gray-yellow clouds of acidic feedback enshrouding “Singer Man”, the belly-churning electro-bass and the off-kilter military snares of “The Show” - never again reaches that level of confrontation, those 75 bars, which appear pretty early on, hover over the rest of the record like an unresolved threat - an admonishment to listeners not to get too comfortable in these here environs. The fact that the record closes with the ingratiating soul groove of “Rising Up”, and a pretty hilarious bonus track that follows up on the vintage Black Thought meltdown that starts the record, it never makes Rising Down feel less volatile.
That volatility is present in the jerky pacing and halting flow of the record too. The songs often seem to work better when taken out of context, but even then, the album seems uncharacteristically short on the songwriting end, getting by more on attitude and vibe (which are, admittedly, impressive here) than substance. That said, the record hits a stride about midway through. The verses of “I Can’t Help It” sizzle and pop like bacon fat in a hot skillet with a vocal hook sung by Mercedes Martinez over industrial oscillations and tribal tom toms. Even better is “I Will Not Apologize” which re-purposes an awesome Fela Kuti Afro-jazz groove (a sample as effective for its musical virtues as it is for its political/historical implications) in the service of a purposeful statement of self-identity in the face of ignorance, stereotype and misunderstanding: “Some won’t get it and for that I won’t apologize.” That line right there is Rising Down in a nutshell.
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