Release Date: May 19, 2014
Record label: Def Jam
Genre(s): Rap, Adult Alternative Pop/Rock, Alternative Rap, Alternative R&B
Few bands can segue from a gig as a chat show's house band to dark, prog-inspired releases, but on And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, the Roots serve up a concept album of tortured stories from a collection of downtrodden and conflicted characters (the group's lead MC, Black Thought, has said the album is a satirical take on stereotypes of the "hood", and those who persevere amid numerous roadblocks to success). Whether sampling rumbling male voices on a version of Mary Lou Williams's The Devil, or leaning on the emotive power of descending minor piano chords on the single When the People Cheer, the Roots have total command of their combination of jazz-influenced hip-hop and social awareness. Black Rock and Understand explore narcotics-ridden, hard-knock life tales, contrasting sharply with the unexpected optimism that seeps into the closing track, Tomorrow.
If hip hop was founded on principles of sampling, then The Roots are not only its protégés, but also its modern purveyors. The Philadelphia-based hip-hop band’s 11th studio album and second consecutive concept album (following 2011’s undun) is a bleak, multi-perspective social commentary on hip-hop culture and violence in America that carefully samples other sources to seriously and satirically substantiate its assessment. Even starting with the album cover, The Roots selected highly specific works to quote throughout ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin.
As the Roots have become more visible and successful, their last few album projects have become increasingly sombre affairs. So naturally, now that the Philadelphia hip-hop group has recently completed their absorption into "middle America" by becoming the house band on The Tonight Show, the group retains this tension in the form of their most challenging and arguably most polarizing album to date, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin. The hard-won triumphs detailed on 2009's How I Got Over in the afterglow of Obama's historic first presidential victory have given way to the narratives on undun and now …And then You Shoot Your Cousin that find the Roots casting critical eyes on theories of a post-racial society, manifesting the voices and the experiences of those whose reality couldn't be further away from late-night television joviality.
Adding to his burgeoning portfolio as a respected drummer, DJ, TV personality, and memoirist, the Roots' Ahmir “QuestLove” Thompson has recently taken to writing features for New York Magazine, about topics ranging from his music education to his reaction to the Trayvon Martin ruling. The latest, a continuing six-part series titled “How Hip-Hop Failed Black America” has been as eloquent and interesting as his other contributions, an erudite examination of one genre's slide from roots-oriented populism to the furthest reaches of conspicuous consumption. But there's an element of disingenuousness to this current project, since the solution to many of the problems he's presented with the genre's current state of affairs—or at least one of the few curatives posed against the hollow corner it's been painted into—can be found in the music of his own group, who conveniently has a new album out this week.
When US talk-show host Jimmy Fallon took over The Tonight Show in February, he brought his house band of five years with him. Their TV gig secure, veteran hip-hop crew the Roots grow steadily more challenging – and interesting – on record. Not everything here sounds like Dies Irae, a blast of radio interference, squelching and screaming at the album's midpoint, which references the end of days.
The Roots have been simultaneously dabbling in Hip Hop as performance art and incorporating increased amounts of Indie Rock and stripped down Blues into their sound since 2010’s How I Got Over. Expected guests, such as fellow Soulquarians Common and D’Angelo from the Things Fall Apart days, have somewhat given way to the likes of Patty Crash, Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens. And instead of his boastful microphone pyrotechnics, Black Thought has showcased a toned down delivery in support of first-person narratives and the type of singing first showcased on 1995’s “Silent Treatment.” The change has worked because The Roots are an adept, Grammy-award winning band, and because the strategy has been executed almost flawlessly.
"Yes, @TheRoots have NEVER been conventional in anything--least of all our album titles," Questlove tweeted wryly, announcing the Roots 11th studio album, ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin. The way the title is worded, it could almost be the title of a "Louie" episode. But the phrase comes from KRS-One's "Step Into A World": "MCs more worried about their financial backin'/ Steady packin' a gat as if something's gonna happen/ But it doesn't, they wind up shootin' they cousin, they buggin." It's a joke, but a bleak, mirthless one, with nothing but dread at its core.
The Roots album graced by a Romare Bearden collage is less than half the length of each studio set the group released from 1995 through 2002. It might be the one that requires the most deep listening to absorb. Part of that can be attributed to the array of voices, or characters -- the widest variety of Roots guests yet. Given that, as well as the collage-like insertion of three preexisting recordings, it could be disregarded as less a Roots album than Wise Up Ghost, their Elvis Costello fling.
Review Summary: undun.With claim to classics upon classics, not to mention the heralded distinction of being one of the only hip-hop acts to avoid the pitfall that was the new millennium by disgorging brilliance at every turn, nobody should have expected this. It really seemed effortless for The Roots to maintain the mantle of “most consistent hip-hop act of all time ever”; they released strong albums every few years like clockwork, with nary a misstep, from 1995 all the way through to 2011. I’ll admit this is a foreboding intro, and things probably sound bad, but they really aren’t – this is The Roots after all – it’s just not the same group that we’ve so long admired.
Brutally bleak, shrouded in screwed hues, with a narrator "on my existential grind doing consequential dirt," this 33-minute concept suite is rap's own Downward Spiral. With zero aspirational tales, the Roots' 11th album explores a hopelessness where the trap is something you're stuck in. The band seems fueled by a moody, circa-1961 record collection, recontextualizing life before funk: Pianos and strings clash in explosions of third-stream jazz, French electro-acoustic pioneer Michel Chion brings noise, deep-blue tones vibrate like Miles Davis' Porgy and Bess, and a 90-second chunk of Nina Simone plays like opening credits.
While first listening to …and then you shoot your cousin on a hot Sunday afternoon, I’m riding my bike down a familiar street only a few blocks away from the home in which I’ve lived for 18 years, and suddenly I’m completely lost. As Patty Crash’s light, lazy hook on “Never” contrasts rap motifs with the helpless feeling of being radically present, unknowing, and vulnerable (“Street dreams/ Close your eyes/ Say goodbye to my memory”), Arizona’s summer sun beats down heavily and obscures my vision. I struggle to navigate my hometown’s beige and meandering suburban neighborhoods.
Morality brushes up against capitalist dreams on the 11th LP from hip-hop's pre-eminent live band, an album as bleak and anti-pop as they come. Following last year's Elvis Costello collaboration and 2010's sprawling and conceptual Undun, the Roots offer a scathing assessment of contemporary hip-hop. It's another conceptual effort that rips the facade off glamorized drug and strip club culture to examine the fraught motivations behind them.
The Roots have gone crazy for concept albums. While the listening habits of the rest of the world long ago leaned towards buying individual songs, Questlove’s group has devoted its last two releases to old-fashioned, tightly themed sets, meant to be consumed whole. Their previous album, “Undun,” told the tale of a ghetto kid whose life turned into a virtual gangsta rap song.
More than three minutes go by at the start of …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, The Roots’ 11th album, before you know for sure that you’re hearing a Roots album. That moment is when Black Thought steps up on “Never” to set up the album’s narrative arc, but it could’ve been something else: crashing Questlove drums, maybe, or a somber keyboard progression. Instead, that opening stretch samples Nina Simone’s “Theme from Middle of the Night” and, on “Never”, features a cameo from the practically helium-voiced Icelandic singer Patty Crash.
No, not everyone listens to their music. Not everyone knew about them until the last few years due to Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Not everyone knows that they are easily one of the most innovative outfits in hip-hop music. But the Roots are still around. I am sure everyone remembers (or has at ….
On Undun, The Roots’ previous album, the band entirely devoted its brand of hip-hop towards a focused outlook that could truly be labeled a concept album. There was an emphasis on telling a story with an arc that was as equally compelling as it was musically diverse. And although it wasn’t the Philadelphia collective’s singular foray into sensational storytelling (Things Fall Apart is maybe the most essentially supreme but Phrenology is just as magnetic), it challenged new visions that incorporated everything from string arrangements to staggered, jagged beats (“Sleep”) that were arguably, a vivid shock.
Earlier this year, while describing to XXL the logic behind The Roots’ newest concept album And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, bandleader Black Thought finished by bluntly saying, “I don’t know if that makes any sense. ” The admission was a result of trying to sum up the significance of the album, which he described as being extremely “dense. ” Anyone who attended the album’s release party in New York last week knows what he meant; full of balloon animals hanging from nooses, didgeridoo players and spoken-word performances, the party left its attendees just as confused as they were entertained.
It was easy to objectify things like rage and disaffection during George Bush Junior’s eight wild years in the White House. Right-minded people weren’t disillusioned with George Bush; his two terms in office were so conspicuously backwards and reactionary that it made it quite natural to be fiercely involved. Things are far more obscure and disjointed in Obama’s America.
In 2014, The Roots are at once closer to and further removed from the pop culture mainstream than they’ve ever been. While they’re on network television five nights a week, wringing chuckles as the game house band for Jimmy Fallon’s Gen X-hugging update of The Tonight Show, they’ve all but given up on reaching that same mass audience with their albums, which have grown increasingly exploratory. An artistic triumph that sold poorly even for a Roots record, 2011’s Undun distanced the band from the very hip-hop that was once the core of their sound, downplaying hard beats in favor of mellow soul fusion, yet that record plays like a veritable pop grab compared to the band’s elusive 11th studio offering, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin.
Three years after releasing their masterful concept record, “Undun,” The Roots push the boundaries of hip-hop with a conceptually fragmented, cinematic song cycle exploring stories from different points of views. The short, musically diverse work, underlined by R&B and jazz, barely maintains a coherent narrative. While the ambition and musical dexterity is admirable, the work doesn’t feel fully realized.