I I I can't help it
Photo by IAAH
Shit's going down. It's a message the Roots have been sending us for a decade-and-a-half with some pretty extraordinary results. On the dark, pessimistic heights of Phrenology and Game Theory, the band tackled everything from Columbine to drug addiction to hypersexualization to the dismal realities of inner-city life. Their new album, Rising Down, barrels down similar avenues, a further distillation of dark times and desperate measures. With his very first lines on their tenth work, Black Thought unleashes an catalog of inconvenient truths: "Between the greenhouse gases and Earth spinnin' off its axis/ got Mother Nature doin' backflips, the natural disaster/ it's like eighty degrees in Alaska, you in trouble if you not an Onassis,/ it ain't hard to tell that the conditions are drastic."
What keeps this from being redundant is all the surrounding elements the Roots throw in. Almost every track comes with well-chosen guests, who actually enliven the proceedings and further the topics rather than brag about themselves. The music is appropriate and potent too, full of imperative drumming and end-times urgency. Even Thought, who's often slammed for his monotonous delivery, shows off a skillful range of moods. He's never sounded more enflamed than on "75 Bars (Black's Reconstruction)," while the defiant "I Will Not Apologize" finds him effortlessly flowing in a cadence as natural as speech.
But it's the next track, "I Can't Help It," where all these factors coalesce especially well. The track starts out jarringly, with a spacey effect that sounds like it was copped from Matmos or M83. When the beat kicks in, it gets no less strange or off-putting, brazenly bizarre for any hip-hop band this side of Subtle. It pulsates with paranoia, hinting at the constant threat of harm. (Amazon even suggested I buy Rising Down paired with Portishead's Third, which is probably the most on-point idea it's ever given me.) And then there's the hook, which is the band's most brilliant move of all. Singing "I I I can't help it" over and over, Mercedes Martinez completely negates the usual purpose of a R&B hook. Rather than tempt or assuage as a good rap vamp should, her almost robotic plea/confession/excuse only makes things feel scarier and more out of control.
It's against this backdrop that Malik B, P.O.R.N. and Black Thought step up and murder the track. With such a confidently bleak intro, the rappers could've just sleepwalked through with some obvious verses and let the music do the heavy lifting. Instead, they drop some of the best lines and sharpest observations on the album. Addressing drug abuse again, this time from a first-person perspective (whereas Phrenology's epic "Water" was an intervention), they dare to tap into emotions just as harrowing as the underscoring Blade Runner beat.
Black Thought leads the way with a standout quartet: "My head already so heavy it's making the scales tip,/ I got my own pressure and got everyone else's/ I'm rehabilitatin' and still feeling rebellious,/ Candidate of heart failure, more pills than Elvis." But it's P.O.R.N. who kills me every time with his distressing follow-up: "I never said I'm ready to die but I accept it,/ Never said I'm ready for war but I'm protected,/ I don't even know when it's coming but I expect it,/ Lost thoughts, innocent hopes and now I'm left with/ Nervous conditions, addictions, in addition/ To vixens that mixed in with the wrong crowd,/ My life is on a flight that going down,/ My mother had an abortion for the wrong child." Any hope of eventual redemption or relief is promptly dashed when Martinez chimes back in, sounding even more astray. "I I I can't help it," she confirms again, just as helpless to escape the song as anybody else.
* MP3: "I Can't Help It" - The Roots from Rising Down [Buy it]
* Also: The Roots' Okayplayer blog