As a general rule, Roots albums don’t offer immediate gratification. Their concept-driven themes demand repeat listens, which doubtless can be attributed to the complex, good-cop/Bad Lieutenant dichotomy between the band’s founding members, drummer/producer ?uestlove and MC Black Thought. These self-described polar opposites have, ostensibly, left the creative direction of a project to the other (2006’s outré Game Theory echoed ?uestlove’s sonically adventurous sensibility; 2004’s pugnacious The Tipping Point was seemingly Black Thought’s baby). But the “chocolate in my peanut butter” dualism is always there on the periphery, often raising more questions than it answers, as on 2002’s vexingly schizophrenic Phrenology.
The Roots’ eighth studio album initially appears to reflect Thought’s battle-rap predilections, with a swaggering return to raw braggadocio. On “75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction),” he frantically blacks out over an ominous sousaphone drone, spacey synth patches, and a spitting-mad breakbeat, claiming that he’s “in your girl, with her heels in the air.”
Eventually, Rising Down develops as a thematically unified, musically propulsive statement about the decline of contemporary society, tackling everything from the Virginia Tech shootings to the fate of urban America, with a polyglot grace that’s memorably moving. And on “Criminal,” with ?uest’s folky orchestration and freeform percussion underscoring a melancholic street narrative, the Roots’ hardscrabble classicism and maverick whimsy cohere seamlessly, making Rising the group’s most potently evocative work yet.