The Roots are my favorite hip hop act of all time. Just to get some fan clichés out of the way, drummer Questlove is one of the most talented musicians (and tweeters) of our time, and Black Thought is the most underrated emcee in the game. Their vast library of soulful and thought-provoking music will comfortably furnish this blog.
Today’s topic: environmental exploitation.
Consider Game Theory (2006) and Rising Down (2008), two haunting albums that use environmental destruction as a backdrop for urban violence. Together they sum up the frustration, destruction, and melancholy of the first eight years of the millenium. And no song does it better than “Rising Down.”
Give the song a listen, while reading the lyrics. The following is just my interpretation. I’d love to hear reactions or points of disagreement.
The song opens with a foreboding “Hello Hello Hello Hell…” on top of basement-shaking base. The Roots are saying hello to Hell, acknowledging that we are on a road toward frightening times. This reading is boosted by Styles P’s verse (“Should I Say Hello?”), and by the sample of Grand Funk Railroad’s “Nothing is the same” (“Now I feel just a little bit old and sadness fills my brain. I can flash to future years and nothing is the same”).
Mos Def kicks it off with a show-stealing guest spot. (The pure poetry of it made me yearn for the Black Star years and his verse on “Hater Players” at 1:30). He opens with…
Every anywhere – heights plains peaks or valleys,
Entrances, exits, vestibules, and alleys,
Winding roads that test the firm nerve,
Fortune or fatal behind the blind curve,
The engine oil purr, lights flash to a blur,
Speed work through the earth make your motor go scurrr.
A car speeds down a dark and dangerous road. The driver doesn’t know whether fortune or death wait around each corner, but the rapid changes to the earth threaten to crash the car.
Tonight at noon watch a bad moon rising
Mos takes us back to 1969 Credence Clearwater. The classic “Bad Moon Rising” explores very similar themes of environmental destruction as a backdrop for social unrest (“I hear hurricanes ablowing. I know the end is coming soon. I fear rivers over flowing. I hear the voice of rage and ruin”).
Identities in crisis and conflict diamonds.
Conflict diamonds represent our lust for supposedly valuable things that come at an unthinkable human cost (speaking of identity crises, remember these two Kanye tracks?). Such goods blind us to the destruction and pain that fuel our modern lifestyle.
Staring at lights ’til they cryin’.
Bone gristle poppin’ from continuous grindin’.
Two versions of the same concept, the latter being the most memorable line in the song. A graphic metaphor for an out-of-control society brutalizing itself with overconsumption.
Grapes of wrath in a shapely glass.
Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939) hits our familiar themes: economic exploitation amidst environmental destruction. The shapely wine glass carries the fruits of exploited labor, adding a historical precedent to the conflict diamond metaphor. Just look at Tom Joad’s famous “I’ll be there speech” and tell me Mos wasn’t thinking about it (“I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere… when the people are eating the stuff they raise, living in the houses they built, I’ll be there”).
Ingredients influential on your ways and acts.
The ingredients that go into what we consume not only define what we do (acts), but who we are (ways). I’d love to know if there is an additional religious perspective here.
Zero tolerance to raise the tax.
Seems like a pretty fair summary of the current negotiating position of Boehner’s House. A return to pre-Bush tax levels on the rich? Nope. A carbon tax to finally deal with carbon emissions? Out of the question.
It don’t matter how your gates is latched
You ain’t safe from the danger jack.
Those sipping the metaphorical wine and rockin’ the proverbial diamonds have a false sense of security, though the consequences of environmental degradation know no boundaries, and social unrest affects all (for more, please see the entire Middle East).
Made away before they made the map
Or a GPS this is D-E-F.
Mos brings us back to the foreboding image of the car speeding ignorantly into the darkness. Perhaps the map represents history and GPS represents our ability to properly navigate such treacherous times. Yet the driver speeds off around the next corner, unaware of the looming crisis.
Compare that to the chorus.
I know where I’m goin even when it’s dark and being led down that road.
You don’t see that something’s wrong earths’ spinnin‘ outta control.
Everything’s for sale – even souls. Someone get God on the phone.
Northside… Southside. Shit is poppin’ off worldwide
Times are dark, and there’s that road again! But in contrast to Mos’s reckless and ignorant driver, the singer here does know where he is going – though it’s not a pretty place. Morality is out, greed is in, and the earth is suffering for it.
Then in comes Black Thought, who, according to Pitchfork, can’t hang after Mos’s verse. Their argument: “Can any MC make the subject of global warming into a dope lyric?”. The Rhymebosome says yes.
Between the greenhouse gases
And earth spinnin’ off its axis
Got mother nature doin’ back flips
The natural disasters.
It’s like 80 degrees in Alaska
This is one of the most explicit calls to acknowledge climate change I’ve found in all of American hip hop. I think it’s a great line, made even more powerful by its musical and lyrical context.
You in trouble if you not an Onasis.
A reference to the family of Aristotle Onassis (wealthy shipping magnate who married JFK’s widow), providing the complement to Mos Def’s verse. While Mos points out that everybody, including the wealthy, is in danger, Black Thought emphasizes how societal inequality makes those at the bottom the most vulnerable. Same goes for poor countries and climate change.
It ain’t hard to tell that the conditions is drastic.
Just turn on the telly check for the news flashin’.
How you want it bagged, paper or plastic?
Lost in translation or just lost in traffic?
Yo I don’t wanna floss I done lost my passion.
And I ant trying to climb. Yo, I lost my traction.
Tariq’s character has lost his will to climb, and the tools to do so. A portrait of the “American Dream” deceased. While Mos’s diamonds and wine separate the elite from exploitation, supermarkets and traffic jams induce anomie in the working class. Insert the depression of Bill Murray in “Lost in Translation” into the man below, and see what happens.
They makin’ me break, my contents under pressure
Do not shake, I’m workin’ while the boss relaxin’.
Here come Mr. Tax Man. He leavin’ a fraction, give me back some.
Matter fact next paycheck it’s like that son.
I’ll fuck around and have to hurt a few men.
They probably chalk it up as a disturbing new trend, hello.
Stress, frustration, and the exploitation get bottled up until the man turns violent. Hello Hell.
Styles P’s verse reinforces these themes with an added critique of the pharmaceutical industry, exploration of African American identity, and some somewhat random hating on computers.
Should I say hello? Or should I say that hell is low?
Am I nigga or a niggero? I’m an African American
They sell drugs in the hood but the man, he move the medicine.
He’ll prescribe you all med for everything.
A little stuffy nose tell you get some Claritin.
You know I’m hip to it. And its hard to claim the land
When my great great great grands were shipped to it.
Look at technology they call it downloading.
I call it downsizing somebody follow me.
Does a computer chip have an astrology?
And when it fuck up could it give you an apology?
Should it say hello? Or should it say goodbye?
Try to understand how smart and how hood am I.|
It don’t matter though.
Until we learn that the world don’t turn right
We all oughta scatter though.
We can’t change anything until we acknowledge how bad the situation is. That goes for both environmental and social issues. And I think both Game Theory and Rising Down do a pretty good job of taking it there.