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