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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The Roots grow in new direction

Band releases new album with new stories to tell

Published: April 11, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.

The Roots, who need no introduction from me, are the influential, hip-hop oriented, jazz influenced band out of Philadelphia that is highly respected for their artistic integrity and its conscience in the face of today’s more commercial hip hop. The band, led by drummer Questlove and MC Black Thought have always taken pride in pushing the envelope while staying “rooted” (pun intended) to their origins as musicians.

For the their upcoming album Rising Down, hitting stores April 29, The Roots have chosen to experiment. And while it may not exactly be a new type of music or sound, there is definitely a new feel, a more fully expressed anger and, possibly even a new openness that Roots fans haven’t seen before.

“75 bars” easily the most provocative Roots production ever, showcases the visceral new direction that its music has taken. With a militant drumbeat looped over a dragging snare that seems to warn us of some impending doom, Black Thought fills that ominous instrumental tone with some of the most anger-filled, intense lyrics of any conscience or even gangster rap artist.

The video, shot by director Rik Cordero (best known for his work on Jay-Z ‘s “Blue Magic” video), features a scenery which brings with it enough intensity and controversy to match the lyrics of the song. We see, through the eyes of different people present, the kidnapping , beating and eventual burning alive of a white male figure who (I’m presuming) represents “The Man.” The subtitle to the song is “Black Reconstruction,” a hint that the metaphorical message behind the obvious display of violence in the video is not only racism, but classism and oppression as a whole by force.

There is symbolism strewn throughout the video which alludes to the Black Panther movement which both paints the picture for us of The Roots vs. Oppression as opposed to The Roots vs. some tied up white guy, while at the same time posing the question of where we draw the line between Criminal and Freedom Fighter.

The next video that leaked onto the internet was for the song “Get Busy.” It further clarifies that, to The Roots, oppression is not merely a black and white issue but one of class struggle and of poverty. It also keeps the same metronome-type drums, perhaps even extenuating this aspect of the instrumental to mirror the robotic nature of how The Roots see the corporate world. This video, also directed by Cordero, addresses gentrification and conformity in a really bizarre way.

The artists, including distinguished guest rappers Dice Raw (a former Roots member) and Peedi Crack (who you might remember from the song “Flipside”), literally become white button down and black tie-wearing automatons. It’s almost funny to discern the serious aspects of this parody from the outright humorous, especially when you see Questlove robotically beating drums.

Even DJ Jazzy (yes, Jazz from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) is featured in this song, doing some scratches for the chorus. The overall experience is not as much of a mind trip as “75 Bars,” but with the key scene in which MC Black Thought has a choice between his own lunch and that of someone named “Tom” (a reference to Uncle Tom’s Cabin), “Get Busy” makes its points in a very straightforward and effective way.

So will Rising Down inspire people to rise up? Maybe. One thing we can be sure of is that it will shock us. It has already started to shock us with its lack of acknowledgment towards convention and total honesty without regards for what shouldn’t be done in a music video.

On a lighter note, The Roots are not all doom and gloom. The song “Birthday Girl,” which was set to be the first single off the album despite all of the other leaked tracks, is a happy, pop synergy feel-good song about young love and confusion. Granted, there are undertones of issues pertaining to girl being too young (à la R. Kelly) but, considering the rest of the album and the fact that the girl in the song is 17, it’s not so bad. Also, most importantly, the song features Fall Out Boy vocalist Patrick Stump, which is also a marker of artistic openness and newfound forms of creativity in The Roots. Rising Down in stores April 29. Be ready to be uncomfortable.