Black Thought and ?uestlove Killed for the Cause

So there’s no need for a breather.

The Roots' contributions are right there on

?uestlove's shirt. Listed in white letters over a black background is: "Phrenology & Tipping & Home Grown! & Game & Rising." It's a nod to most of the eight (by my count) studio albums by this Philly-born-and-bred collective of doomsayers and rabble-rousers, and a bit of a tease on this windy, frosty early June night at Neumo's, where they've come to give loyalists a "listen" to their latest bleak wanderings, Rising Down. We don't hear much Roots history this evening, in other words, but we do hear a lot of hip-hop history.We hear Slick Rick and Notorious B.I.G. and Tribe Called Quest and Mobb Deep and Easy-E—all of which comes courtesy of ?uest, who's onstage serving deck duty, dropping records in the manner of a gloomy Pooh-bear. His headphones turn his afro into competing mountains, in the middle of which is a deep, treacherous valley, and he's so stilted and morose I almost wanna climb up there and give him a hug. When Black Thought finally comes on—garbed in sunglasses, a Yankees cap, and a long-sleeved button-up spackled with flora and lepidopterous insects—I'm ready for a happy respite. But I know better—this guy isn't the rainbows-and-sunshine type, despite the butterflies and blooming flowers on his shirt.Thing is, ?uest and Thought bring energy of a different sort, which—once I let the vodka take hold and lead the way—I later realize is pretty fucking amazing, given that they'd arrived here from Marymoor Park, where they'd performed along with Erykah Badu (whom ?uest sorta "discovered"). Normal people would be dog-ass tired, but these two dark knights traffic in a brutal vitality that requires no breathers, no time-outs from the spotlight, as it is conflict drama (they're always fighting with each other, with their label, with hip-hop) of a type known only to vets who've killed for the cause. I need to shut up, sit back, and enjoy the ride.And I do, because, as I later discover (I'm all about hindsight), ?uest couldn't give a wooden nickel what you think about him—dude's about the music. Which is why he requests that the lights be cut off before he lets Mobb Deep's classic "Shook Ones" spill out of the speakers like blood onto the pavement.It's mostly ?uest's show, but Thought does run through a few cuts, including my new favorite (or one of them, anyway) "Rising Up," which goes in the opposite direction of their newest release's title. It starts off with a male vocalist and Chrisette Michele singing a familiar tune (in terms of theme): "Yesterday, I saw a b-girl crying/I walked up and asked what's wrong/She told me that the radio's been playing the same song all day long." Thought eventually jumps in with: "So get your glass, lift it up in the toast position/We're getting paper like John Travolta get it/Cause we focused with it."The tune—supported by ?uest's expert drumming—adds a bit of levity to an otherwise nasty bit of hustle-bustle, to crib the coked-out, mustachioed hanger-on in Boogie Nights. Michele's chorus begins as yet more dismay, but the beat and Thought's lyrics push the mood about as close to a smiley face as you're gonna get here. I mean, the freakin' record kicks off with an argument among the Roots' members—about the (intentionally?) mislabeled track "The Pow Wow"—which is annoying and grating and just plain horrible. Me likey.The Roots' willingness to court violent nimbi instead of fluffy cumuli is refreshing in that it accurately reflects the troubled times we're staring down, like Hemingway did with his shotgun way back when. On Rising Down, they or one of their many guests—including Mos Def, Common, and Dice Raw—tackle global warming ("Rising Down"), petty crime ("Criminal"), and a bunch of other depressants.But for me the real stand-out is "I Will Not Apologize," a defiant fist-in-the-face wrapped around a buzzing bass line that sounds like radar tracking an enemy satellite. Porn and Dice Raw overpower Thought and Talib Kweli (who helps handle the chorus) with their almost down-bottom delivery (meaning: Southern). It's as quick as an old OutKast album. And it's kinda creepy.So, where does Rising Down fit into the Roots' oeuvre? Fuck if I know. Some say it's their darkest effort to date, but that isn't really true. After all, 1999's Things Fall Apart was frantic with beastly doings, and 2002's Phrenology was a reference to a crackpot medical theory that the bumps and humps on the skull speak to a person's mental capacity. So I just keep coming back to ?uest's shirt, which connects the albums together with a humble ampersand—links on the same historic

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