For the Philadelphia-based band The Roots, expressing a socially conscious perspective can often seem like the most un-hip-hop thing to do. “There hasn’t been a precedent for a hip-hop group to even have an option to make a moody album,” says drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson. “The rules of hip-hop say it has to be party music or what you throw on when you want to vicariously beat somebody’s behind. Never music to be taken seriously. Since 2002’s Phrenology, our mission was always to shatter the unwritten double standard.”

The band’s latest effort, Rising Down (Island Def Jam), is indeed somber. But it’s also an expertly arranged, thrilling listen, pulsating with brooding synths, thudding bass lines and possibly some of the group’s most cerebral subject matter to date. Like several past Roots releases, the new CD’s title comes from a literary source—William T. Vollmann’s seven-volume opus on the ethical implications of societal violence, Rising Up and Rising Down.

“The book questions, when is violence justifiable, when is it self-serving?” says Thompson. “It can also apply to hip-hop. Is it eating its young only to give diminished returns? Has hip-hop obliterated itself into a mere shadow?”

Admittedly, the CD sounds nothing like the hip-hop heard on commercial radio. But that’s how The Roots have operated for 15 years, largely eschewing music trends (translation: risking generally modest record sales) in order to follow their own creative impulses. “We’ve learned from the beginning to be our own entity,” shares Thompson, and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, the band’s lyricist, agrees: “We don’t try to please everyone. Those older fans who expect something from The Roots are a tad more important to me than getting new fans.”

The Grammy-winning band’s commitment to its artistic vision makes the group one of the few rap acts who have a long list of artists willing to work with them. In fact, Rising Down features cameos from R&B singer Chrisette Michele, Common, Talib Kweli, DJ Jazzy Jeff, and a raft of newcomers.

“We record in the spirit of the Berry Gordy camp and Gamble & Huff, where people were writing up to a dozen quality songs within a day because the competition was that hard,” Trotter says. “You had to battle for your spot on the record.”

Rappers Mos Def and Styles P pitch in on the haunting title track, whose chorus demands, “You don’t see that something’s wrong?/ Earth’s spinning out of control/Everything’s for sale, even souls/ Someone get God on the phone.” Meanwhile, the album’s centerpiece, “Singing Man,” gets even darker. On this song, with its spooky sound effects and crashing drums, Thompson says he and Trotter “took a weird approach to justifiable violence.”

The track tackles aggression from the different perspectives of an American student–killer on campus, a child soldier from Sierra Leone and a Middle Eastern suicide bomber. “We wanted an approach in which you humanize the situation because you sort of see their sick logic, not that we’re advocating it at all,” Thompson explains.

By disc’s end, the mood lightens a bit with Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump’s vocals on “Birthday Girl,” a coming-of-age ditty that offers a hopeful counterbalance to the album’s grimmer moments. “We’ve always felt that with every album, we should reinvent ourselves,” Thompson says. “My main concern is making credible music.” Mission accomplished.

Photo Credit: Brian and Chago