The Roots

"Rising Down" (Def Jam)--2 stars

The blog Stuff White People Like tells us that Caucasians (ahem) like the depiction of inner-city Baltimore on “The Wire” because of its authenticity. And that reasoning also explains why white people have always had a soft spot for hip-hop/jazz/funk collective the Roots and why they’ll probably like their latest, “Rising Down.” The group’s music is “authentic;” it depicts the grim realities of inner-city life. Or so white people will tell you.

But then again, the Roots once served as a backing band for Dave Matthews, and they’ve made a habit of playing yard concerts for stoned Ivy Leaguers. Movies completely out of touch with mainstream American black culture (like “Collateral” and “Superbad”) use their tunes when they need a rap song to soundtrack an onscreen party. Hell, the Roots have even sampled Radiohead. On “Rising Down,” Roots MC Black Thought says “They can never take the pen away / I’m LeRoi Jones.” But if these guys are aiming to please Amiri Baraka, they’re probably missing their mark.

Assimilationist tendencies aside, the Roots have done little over the years to play down their representational politics. Just look at the group’s name, or the title that Tariq Trotter self-consciously adopted years ago (to wit: freestyle track “@ 15” features the lyrics, “I have black thoughts / Therefore my name’s the same”). The Roots have always invoked canonical elements of black culture—their first proper release was called “Things Fall Apart,” after all—and as one of the few touring rap acts featuring extensive funk instrumentation, they’re the closest thing out there to an extant Family Stone or the J.B.’s.

Their arrangements and aggressively jammy live shows have carried Black Thought’s workmanlike writing throughout the years. Their last release, 2006’s grim “Game Theory,” was a minor, controlled masterpiece, featuring solid writing and haunting beats. But on “Rising Down,” the lush horns that fanfared “The Tipping Point” have disappeared, replaced by the icy production values that “Game Theory” hinted at. The album’s sonics are unrelentingly bleak: everything’s minor-key. Drummer ?uestlove’s usual crisp snare work has to wade through a sea of fuzzy synths to make itself heard. While a headphone album is nothing new for the Roots, the unenergetic electronic textures get claustrophobic quickly. The album features vocalist cameos, but it doesn’t have a melody to speak of.

This means listeners are left with little but Black Thought’s musings for an entire album’s worth of entertainment. His subpar flow has its moments on “Rising Down,” most notably on hook-free marathon “75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction).” But the only quotables come from the album’s plethora of guest artists, which includes Dice Raw (“Built like a tank, smokin’ on dank / Walkin’ through the Guggenheim, raw life black ink”) and the seething Saigon, who—incredibly—still has yet to release his long-delayed debut.

The point here is the politics. Black Thought devotes attention to both inner-city and environmental problems, and he’s certainly politically aware (the patronizing hip-hop equivalent of being “well-spoken”) if not especially knowledgeable or coherent. And while there’s little to please President Bush in the liberal muddle of “Rising Down,” there’s also not much to amuse hop-hop fans. Black Thought still doesn’t understand how to craft a narrative or an engaging rap persona, and the band sounds like it’s tired of compensating for his weaknesses. White people—or at least the white people constructed by the blogosphere—will dig the dime-store ghetto voyeurism that Black Thought peddles on “Rising Down,” but the only thing truly authentic about this release is its dreariness.

—Reviewer Jake G. Cohen can be reached at jgcohen@fas.harvard.edu.