Who says hip-hop acts can’t get better with age? Since they started working for The Man (i.e., Jay-Z) two albums ago, The Roots have hardened their sound; and whether or not you believe such a gambit translates as a commercial sellout, as some older boosters believe, the socially conscious content on “Rising Down” is more clear-headed and penetrating than it was on their relatively laid-back 1990s albums.

The large contingent of inspired guest rappers has the positive effect of simultaneously giving MC Black Thought an occasional breather and pushing him to improve his game. On “75 Bars,” he lets loose with a rant about his skills that elevates the art of boasting to a new plateau. Meanwhile, drummer Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson’s production is fussier than ever, and it pays off with incredibly fresh grooves that fill the hole in major-label hip-hop left by Outkast’s extended sabbatical from collaborative endeavor.

The album hits its high point both musically and lyrically on “Singing Man,” in which terrorism is reduced to its most tragic element: a 13-year-old Sierra Leone boy with a gun who can’t “rearrange the truth to see the lies.” Far less compelling is the joint with Fall Out Boy, which only goes to show how inexplicable commercial gambits can be. Just thank god (i.e., Jay-Z) it comes at the end of the album. Up until that point, this is as good as hip-hop gets.

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