Tuned In To Music

Reflections from a lifetime

Review: The Roots, Rising Down

The Roots are a rap group out of Philadelphia with a reputation for ignoring rap cliches and going their own way.  Long before it was popular they made music by playing their own instruments instead of relying on samples as was the standard practice in most rap and hip hop.  Rising Down, their ninth album, has received a good deal of critical praise as a thoughtful tract on politics, social and economic inequality and, of course, racism.

Whatever its worth as social commentary Rising Down has a significant flaw.  It’s unpleasant to listen to.  The CD opens with a very bad live recording of two people having an argument that immediately descends into almost unitelligible shouting and screaming.  It may be making an important point but it’s so unpleasant that it’s easier to just skip over it and start with track two.  The recording quality throughout the album is not very good.  “75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction)” is an interesting case in point.  Black Thought’s vocal is either so badly recorded or recorded with such extreme effects processing that it sounds like shit on good equipment.  Again, the temptation is to just skip the track rather than suffer through the ugly sound.  Listening on high quality headphones through a computer is another story.  The vocal sounds fine because the system can’t reproduce the unpleasant frequencies that can be heard on a better system.  The target audience for this music is more likely to be listening through earbuds so the crappy recording is not likely to be an issue but it’s foolish to send a message you want people to hear in a format that that may lead people to turn you off when the alternative of competent recording is available.

Roots may play their own instruments but they don’t do very much with them.  Track after track features an unrelenting and simple drum and bass track with little snippets of embellishment here and there.  The tracks are sufficiently different but each one tends to be monotonous. 

One of the enjoyable characteristics of rap music is that it can take some time for the lyrics to become clear.  Rapid-fire delivery, atypical prosidy and mixing the vocal deep in the music tracks can produce a situation where the message slowly becomes clear over repeated listens.  The beats hook interest in the early stages and the track continues to provide a sense of discovery as the meaning comes together.  This slow growth can be enhanced when the message asks the listener to think about social and political issues instead of the drivel of self promotion favored by popular hip-hop titans.  In order for this to work, however, you have to want to listen to the CD multiple times.  The poor recording and bland musical accompanyment on Rising Down don’t encourage further listening which is a shame because Roots have important things to say.

These criticisms are not likely to present problems for the committed rap fan who is practiced at trading musical for lyrical content and patient with the time it may take to draw the lyrics out.  People who listen to rap rarely or occasionally are less likely to stick with Rising Down long enough to think about the issues discussed on the CD.  This raises a question for Roots and and anyone else who has something important to say that they would like other people to consider.  You can preach to the choir and constrain your ideas to the limited audience that’s familiar and comfortable with your means of presentation or you can embed your rap in a musical context that encourages people outside the rap niche to listen to what you have to say.

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08/02/2008 - Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] some respects Everywhere at Once is the polar opposite of the Roots’ Rising Down reviewed in the previous post.  Lyrics Born is deeply into funk and R&B and in terms of […]

    Pingback by Review: Lyrics Born, Everywhere at Once « Tuned In To Music | 08/04/2008 | Reply


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