The Roots And Jal Set The Hip-Hop Bar Higher

(Sonic 360 - Universal)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Sarah Godfrey
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 13, 2008

There is no longer any excuse for making mindless hip-hop. New albums from both Philadelphia's Roots and Sudanese rapper Emmanuel Jal are politically and musically engaging, invalidating other rappers' whiny claims that it's just way too hard to be thought-provoking and topical and still make money, too.

With respectful, artful storytelling, Jal's "Warchild" and the Roots' "Rising Down," their best disc since "Things Fall Apart,"delve into broad issues of poverty, drugs and government corruption, and also tackle more specific ones, such as the plight of child soldiers in Africa.

On "Singing Man," from "Rising Down," Black Thought recounts the life of a physically and emotionally scarred child soldier in Sierra Leone. Jal, throughout "Warchild," tells a similar tale, but the story is his own: He was recruited in his own country's horrific civil war around the age of 11. Given the current rap landscape, the documenting of such atrocities on two separate hip-hop records is nothing short of amazing.

On "Rising Down," the Roots give their tried-and-true sound a huge dose of electro enhancements -- layering synthesizer effects over their instrumentals tempers heady subject matter with much-needed thump. Exploring topics such as greenhouse gases and tax hikes against a less relentlessly driving backdrop might've resulted in a wan hip-hop folk album.

"Rising Down" is also enhanced by guest verses from artists both thought-provoking and lyrically gifted. Resident MC Black Thought gets assists courtesy of everyone from Talib Kweli and Mos Def to undergrounders P.O.R.N. and Truck North, giving the album the urgent feel of rappers uniting to address pressing issues. Among the topics: addictions that desensitize us to problems both personal and societal ("I Can't Help It") and apathetic youth culture ("Lost Desire").

On "Warchild," Jal goes after the Pied Piper of numb, vice-addled youngsters everywhere on "50 Cent." Not surprising that the man who, on the title track that opens his album, repeats the mantra "I believe I've survived/For a reason/To tell my story, to touch lives," would take the bullet-pocked Queens MC to task for glorifying his violent past. Rather than go at 50 Cent battle-track style, Jal pleads with him to change his ways because he's being "played by the man."

Jal recounts his own story with similar grace and wisdom. Over music grounded in soukous and roots reggae, he fires off straightforward lyrics in a sweet voice. His account of time spent as a child warrior on "Forced to Sin" ("Lived with an AK-47 by my side/Slept with one eye open wide/Run/Duck/Play dead and hide") is horrific and filled with wretched details. Autobiographical material about Jal's life after he fled Sudan deals with nightmarish memories as he watches the conflict rage on from afar ("Hai").

Both albums, despite their heavy content, attempt to end on an up note. The Roots close with "Rising Up," which raises the problem of mundane music and then provides a solution, featuring singer Chrisette Michele and D.C. rapper Wale over stirring, go-go-inspired instrumentals.

Jal ends on a more bittersweet note with "Emma," a tribute to Emma McCune, the British aid worker who died shortly after taking Jal out of Sudan and helped him rise beyond the most horrible of circumstances.

The Roots are scheduled to perform (with Erykah Badu) at DAR Constitution Hall tomorrow and Thursday.

DOWNLOAD THESE: Roots: "Singing Man," "Rising Up," "Rising Down"; Jal: "Forced to Sin," "50 Cent," "Hai"

© 2008 The Washington Post Company