The next time someone tells you that all hip-hop is the same, with narcissistic MCs rapping about their jewelry to pre-programmed backing tracks, make sure to sling the new Roots CD, Rising Down, in their direction. The Philly band—and they are a real band—would be remarkable if only because they use live instrumentation that moves and breathes with all the dynamics of any tight rock or funk outfit: Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson hammers down the beat with a ferocious attentiveness, buttressed by Owen Biddle's nimbly slinky yet sludgy-thick bass.
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But what really makes the Roots stand out is that Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter and a stellar cast of guests (Mos Def, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Saigon, Common, Chrisette Michelle and Talib Kweli) have something relevant to say. Themes range from the unjust justice system ("Criminal"), modern paranoia (the title track) and child soldiers ("Singing Man") to addictions, both chemical and cultural ("I Will Not Apologize").