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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now to the latest album from the Roots. That's a hip-hop group from Philadelphia, and they've taken a different direction with this CD. Our critic Tom Moon says "Rising Down" may be the group's best album.

(Soundbite of song, "Criminal")

TOM MOON: This is album number 10 for the Roots. That's like three lifetimes in hip-hop, where the fast-talking new sensation is king.

(Soundbite of "Criminal")

THE ROOTS (Hip-Hop Group): (Rapping) Look, it is what it is because of what it was. I did what I did 'cause it does what it does. I won't put nothin' above what I am, what I love: my family, my blood, my city and my hood. Hater for the great good...

MOON: There are many explanations for this longevity. The Roots put on an intense live show, for one thing. And every few years, they come up with an insanely catchy tune, like this one.

(Soundbite of "Criminal")

THE ROOTS: (Singing) Monday they predict the storm. Tuesday they predict the path. Wednesday they cover crash. And I can see it's all about cash. And they got the nerve to hunt down my ass and treat me like a criminal.

MOON: This new Roots project is substantially different from most everything the band has done before. Primary rapper Black Thought used to boast at length about his skills as an MC. Now he's looking beyond himself, sketching portraits of cough syrup addicts and the victims of senseless inner-city violence.

(Soundbite of song, "Lost Desire")

THE ROOTS: (Rapping) We in the city where they definitely lost it. You open your eyelids and capped in the ribs. Your funeral, boy, they hang your 12-grade portrait. Pretty corpse and casket, pale-shade orchids, said he 19 and left a self-made fortune. (unintelligible) in a box. (unintelligible) crumbling, nothing is the everything, then that's the problem. (unintelligible) like Russian roulette with a full set that (unintelligible). Bling's in the market, people have heart beat. Every day a struggle, trying to get up out the mosh pit. Homicide for profit, tell me how we not...

MOON: That one shift in perspective makes a huge difference. It leads the Roots to sharp critiques on the state of hip-hop. On several rhymes, they argue that the music has lost its way, that it's bogged down in battle taunts and rented bling.

(Soundbite of music)

THE ROOTS: (Rapping) (unintelligible) jewels with it, cars with it (unintelligible) authentic. I can tell from TV, but to me you seem a little timid. Don't...

MOON: The Roots bolster those assertions with supercharged backbeats and dense sonic attack that recalls the great Public Enemy records of the 1980's. The band's looking back and grabbing some inspiration. But they're focused on the here and now. And with "Rising Down," the Roots are taking message music to another level.

(Soundbite of music)

THE ROOTS: (Rapping) (unintelligible)

SIEGEL: Our critic is Tom Moon. And again, that new album by the Roots is called "Rising Down."

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