The Roots: And Then You Shoot Your Cousin Review (4 Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are four reactions, four impressions, four takes on And Then You Shoot Your Cousin by The Roots.
Ali (@Egyptoknuckles, Background Noise Crew)
Eleven albums deep into their discography, the Roots deliver what will be considered by many to be a mixed message. By far the leanest release in the Roots discography “…and then you shoot your cousin” almost plays out like if you took the satirical message of “Pussy Galore” off “Phrenology,” and mixed that with production that continues where “Undun” left off, and it could either be a bitter pill to swallow, since many have made light of the lack of Black Thought, but musically and sonically, it’s their darkest and dreariest album since “Game Theory,” while adding more voices to the context of the narrative. Take for example the lead off mid-tempo of “When the People Cheer,” or the hard as nails edge on “Black Rock” with Dice Raw, where Black Thought continues to make the case to be your top ten of all time. When it all comes to a soulful, yet somber close on “Tomorrow,” it is Raheem Devaughn who closes out the album, proving that they continue to deliver thought provoking music in these days and times we’re in.
On their 11th studio record …And Then You Shot Your Cousin, they release another “concept” record – this one is described by Black Thought as a “satirical look at violence in hip hop and American society”.
It opens with “Theme From Middle Of The Night” in what appears to be both a tribute to and lesson from the revolutionary vocalist and pianist, Nina Simone. “Never” follows, and starts off interesting, with a vocal from Patty Crash, before going subterranean as Black Thought comes in, than disappears. The excellent “When The People Cheer” and “Understand” are the jewels of the set. While vocalist Modesty Lycan and Greg Porn lend a hand, it’s Black Thought’s moment on “When The People Cheer” . There’s another toast to a legend with “The Devil” by jazz pianist, composer and arranger Mary Lou Williams. On the haunting, searing “Understand” all three MC’s shine, Dice Raw opines on the chorus “People ask for God, til the day he comes, see God’s face turn around and run” and Greg Porn’s “In my church clothes breaking bud on a bible…got me thinking ’bout doing a jihad with these guys, who’s only true religion look better than Levi’s” . Again it’s Black Thought who goes in, with “Gravedigger, dig a hole that fit a black nigga, My body’s stiff like Madame Tussaud’s wax figure”. Whoa. “Dies Irae” is static. “The Coming” has vocals from Mercedes Martinez: “The law of gravity meets, the law of averages, Ain’t no sense in attempting to civilize savages, even though I wish I could be spared my embarrassment, I’m a nigga, other niggas pale in comparison” Black Thought is in rare form on “The Dark (Trinity)” . On the final two tracks they get an assist from ace soul vocalist Raheem DeVaughn on “The Unraveling” and “Tomorrow” . On “The Unraveling” things become clear, looking back through history “What did the thief say onto the hanging man? “Here come the hounds, lay your burdens down in advance…Free at last! Free at last! A different me at last…came from nowhere, disappear just as fast” spits Black Thought.
With …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, the Roots pass on big name guests in favor of their own bench. Rappers like Dice Raw and Porn make a gang of appearances, too many perhaps for core Roots fans who simply want to hear Black Thought wax poetic over boom bap beats and jazzy, soulful grooves. –
Eleven songs clocking in at 32 minutes makes …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin feel like an EP, or a band delivering their last record of a contract. The record keeps with The Root’s’ trajectory, with their last four records on DefJam, each one getting darker as the band matures with grace, searching for a new lane. There are moments here “When The People Cheer”, “Understand”, “The Dark (Trinity)” & “The Unraveling”. There’s a buried brilliance, but something’s missing; maybe The Roots are getting bored. In an effort to stay fresh Questlove continues his experiment to take The Roots on an avant guard journey, testing their fans patience and willingness to come along.
“How did the Roots ever trick the general populace into liking good music?” That’s the paradox that has always mystified me about this band. Depressing, uncompromising, jazz-oriented – these adjectives do not often add up to “incredibly commercially successful rap group.” But somehow the Roots have pulled it off, and continue to do so. Their latest record, And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, is the latest installment in a steady stream of the same thing – albums that, on paper, most A&R’s would probably dismiss outright for being too niche-oriented. To me that is evidence that the Roots truly are great – not only can they succeed with the people who are responsible for giving Macklemore a Grammy, they are also loved by the snobs, the intellectuals, the (ugh) music bloggers.
This is a long way of saying that the Roots are a phenomenon – and a great one at that. As far as I know they have never made a truly bad album, and Cousin is a continuation of that streak. In fact, I think that it is one of their best. The Roots might get dinged by some critics for their consistent sound, but when you are dark and artistic to begin with, you don’t really get the opportunity to change everything up with a dark, artistic concept album. For the Roots, changing it up would be making something like Pharrell’s “Happy” and I don’t think anyone really wants that. I like that they are consistent, and I think that Cousin is one of the best realized products of that consistency – a melding of hip hop, jazz, and chaos that comes together better more cohesively than any past effort.
I have to catch myself and make sure I am thinking critically about new LPs from The Roots. It is occasionally hard because, even when they haven’t been at their best, they are constantly exploring and branching out their sound, and to me are one of the greatest all around hip-hop crews of all time. With their latest album, they flip the script in a way that is brazen and outside the box as any of their previous moves. ..and then you shoot your cousin is a existential, heady, thought-provoking neo-soul LP that is masquerading as a rap album. Lead MC Black Thought and guest rappers are so scarce you often forget this is a Roots record at all. It is brooding, soulful, and lush, a sonic joinery that you wish lasted longer than its 32 minute lifespan. The album seems to have taken the immaculate hooks meant to serve as the backdrop to the rapping and reversed the pecking order.
When Black Thought and others do jump into the fray, it seems that the space and tension afforded them by minimizing their output manifests itself in especially powerful, intense, and dramatic lyrical flourishes. You can almost feel the veins flexing in Thought’s neck on songs like “Understand,” where he seems to be making up for lost time. The rappers and singers match the moody, luscious music with songs about sins, religion, and the dark underbelly of life. When listening to this LP, I certainly give The Roots bonus points for their willingness to explore a new sound, but can safely say that this album is an amazing piece of work, no matter who would shave made it.