If the recent Smirnoff showcase in New York — in which Common, Q-Tip, and KRS-One disconcertingly sold their skills to the British-owned 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 wealthy and comfortable doesn't mean 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. Vollman's book Rising Up and Rising Down, the album has a tone that's summarized by Black Thought's announcement he's "on some bomb threat in the mail shit" on "I Can't Help It." But he's not the only one itching for a fight. ?uestlove's caustic drumming and Kamal's dirty, almost grating keys make for angry-feeling instrumentation that borders on unmelodic and always demands the listener's attention. Although the energy in the album's second half flags and there are plenty of gratuitous guest appearances (including Common's), overall Rising Down rivals the group's masterpiece Things Fall Apart in freshness, complexity, and vitality.
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