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Album Preview: The Roots "Trying to Travel Down Paths Not Seen Before"

February 22, 2008 12:55 PM ET

The Roots are in the studio putting the finishing touches on their tenth album, a mostly dark, synth-heavy meditation on the state of the world called Rising Down, which will come out in May. "Not many groups can get away with a somber record," says drummer and bandleader Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson. "There are unwritten rules in hip-hop and the main one is that hip-hop is supposed to be party music or the vicarious fantasy of the tough guy. Where we are now, as we get more mature, we're just trying to travel down paths not seen before."

The guest-packed album builds on the brooding sadness of their last album, Game Theory. But while that album, which came together after the death of close associate J. Dilla, was personal, Rising Down is more political. "Criminal," with verses from Q-Tip, Saigon, and Philadelphia-based newcomer Truck North, describes the conditions that lead young men to violence, including poverty and police brutality. "Sing It Man" takes the same concept global, with verses from the perspective of the Virginia Tech shooter, a child solider in Liberia and a suicide bomber. "It's like a look into the minds of people in the news who think they have justifiable reason to commit violence and to die," says Roots MC Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter, who is also hoping to get to the South by Southwest film festival next month, where a movie he stars in (the Jim Jarmusch-produced The Explicit Ills) will screen. The album, which also features guest spots from Mos Def, Common, Talib Kweli and Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump, isn't all doom and gloom: "Rising Up," with R&B songstress Chrisette Michelle and DC rapper Wale, is a gospel-inflected celebration of success, while "Birthday Girl" is a lighthearted party track featuring Stump, on which Black Thought rhymes "underbelly" with "R. Kelly."

As usual, the band crosses genres few others in hip-hop would dare, as on the Afro-beat-based "I Will Not Apologize" and "Blacks Recognition (75 Bars)," which has a tuba bassline. "There is very little margin of error for us," says Thompson. "It's rare for any group - not just in hip-hop, but any group -- to have ten quality albums."

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