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The Roots, ‘…And Then You Shoot Your Cousin’ [ALBUM REVIEW]

The Roots
Def Jam

The Roots have been doing this hip-hop thing for over 20 years but their 11th studio album just might be their most experimental to date — for better or worse.

Clocking in at a little over a half an hour, the brief (but very dense) ‘…And Then You Shoot Your Cousin’ shifts shape and toggles between genres with varying degrees of success. It’s a gray, ominous cloud of commentary and observation about the lives of the hood’s denizens with some the occasional bright spot but no consistent sliver lining. Patty Crash’s eerie vocals segue into Black Thought’s verse on the psychedelic ‘Never’ then soon after, we’ve made it to the Blaxploitation-era jamming of ‘Black Rock’ right before moving on to the thrilling avant-garde of the Mercedes Martinez-assisted ‘The Coming.’ The lush soundscapes aren’t experimental just for the sake of experimenting though, The Roots are trying to tell us something here with no fear of being heavy handed.

Listen to The Roots’ ‘Tomorrow’ Feat. Raheem DeVaughn

The LP starts with Nina Simone’s mournful ‘Theme From the Middle of the Night,’ an ode to those who can’t get a reprieve from darkness surrounding them and within them. Right in the middle of the album is the late Mary Lou Williams’ ‘The Devil,’ a soulful phrasing of the line, “Hell is other people.”The inclusion of these works by important African-American cultural figure adds more gravitas to The Roots’ creative idiosyncrasies. The combination of soul, gospel, blues and hip-hop is meant to provide the soundtrack for the weighty subject inner city life and its ills.

Listen to The Roots’ ‘Understand’ Feat. Dice Raw & Greg Porn

At the core of the album we get Black Thought as gritty, contemplative and sharp as ever — supported by Questlove’s expert percussion. Thought is technically proficient enough to make a listener temporarily forget about the dark subject matter he’s examining and get lost in his timbre and flow.

Before you realize how nihilistic he is on ‘Black Rock’ you’re compelled by his dizzying internal rhyme schemes:

“Mumbo Jumbo n—-s onomatopoeia-in’ / Call it how I see them ain’t no rhyme or reason / I’m on some different bullshit everyday just like per diem / I damn with animal anguish/ So love no bitch die richer than language / Guilty of sin depending on the reeds shaking in the wind.”

But for all of Thought’s lyricism the album’s central theme is cynicism. The gospel organ of ‘Understand’ recalls the idea of the church being the cure for the directionless youth on the street. Dice Raw, with sarcasm, explains: “People ask for God, till the day he comes / See God’s face, turn around and run.” The ‘Black Rock’ example is a little rougher. “The only thing in front of me is a bullet in the head,” raps Dice. On ‘The Dark (Trinity),’ the album’s penultimate track, Black Thought slams materialism and its cost with a succinct, stark bar: “Hashtag diamond dog tag.”

Listen to The Roots’ ‘When the People Cheer’

But even with the less apparent examples intact, ‘…And Then You Shoot Your Cousin’ may not be as subversive as the group hopes it to be. The ideas aren’t necessarily new or revolutionary. In fact, The Roots have focused on similar themes on their two prior albums. They’re just representing these ideas in another context that’s compelling, but at times, overbearing in its dourness. The narrative is surprisingly standard, too. The progression from hollow optimism to trauma (the avant-garde ‘Dies Irae’) to redemption (via the baptismal, haunting vocals of the Raheem DeVaughn-supported ‘The Unraveling’) to renewed optimism (the awkwardly cheerful and unearned ‘Tomorrow’) has been done before. Kendrick Lamar’s ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ did this with less gloom and more thrills.

‘…And Then You Shoot Your Cousin’ isn’t The Roots at their best, but rather at their most cinematic thanks to production value and brutal poetry. Eighteen years ago on ‘Illadelph Halflife,’ the group lamented on the album outro that “their concept has not yet blown up and it is possible it won’t.” This LP sounds like they’re at least on the cusp of doing so. Perhaps the trick to getting it right is realizing what’s truly progressive and navigating through that progressive space.

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