A lot of people were surprised and/or disappointed that last year’s Wise Up Ghost, the collaborative album between The Roots and Elvis Costello, featured absolutely no rapping on it at all. In retrospect, there really isn’t a lot of material on the album that would have benefited from Black Thought’s rhymes; Costello had so much energy as a front-man for the ensemble, and the album was already so long that any additional vocals would have just felt gimmicky.
Still, for all the genre bending and unpredictable collaborations the Roots do, they are still pigeonholed as a “Hip Hop” group, even though any true fan knows they draw on Jazz, Funk and Soul, as much as they do any other genre. Less than a year later, The Roots are back, Black Thought and all, with …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, an album that feels like it might be some sort of “f**k you” to the fans who were turned off by Wise Up Ghost. While there is rapping here, almost half of the album is instrumental, with Thought only appearing on five out of the eleven tracks. Generally an approach like this would feel very counter-intuitive, but The Roots throw themselves into the dark territory of the lyrics and the music with such bravado that it’s hard not to applaud the final result, if for no other reason than for how daring it is.
In addition to being their least rap-audience-friendly album yet (collaborations like the aforementioned Wise Up Ghost or Al Green’s Lay It Down notwithstanding), And Then You Shoot Your Cousin might just be the darkest album The Roots have ever done. It’s also the shortest one of their career, clocking in at a mere thirty-three minutes (which is a full five minutes shorter than their last album Undun, the previous title holder). This is probably a good thing however, as an hour long-album of material, this depressing would probably be too much to handle.
The opening track “Theme From the Middle of the Night” sets the pace with its somber, downbeat Nina Simone sample. This is the kind of audio clip that most Hip Hop artists would chop up, just to waste on a hook for a track, yet The Roots let it play out fairly unedited, with some strings and ambient noise being the only noticeable additions to the original recording. After that it’s on to “Never”, a spooky minimalist track that begins with an eerie choir singing under a heavily phased-out Patty Crash urging you to “say goodbye to the memories”.
?uestlove’s drums pound heavily and slowly in the background, and as the chorus draws to a close, and a deep bassline and subdued cymbals begin growing ever-so-slowly louder, it seems as if the song is building towards Black Thought’s rhymes entering the track. But just before that happens, the group subverts expectations yet again by throwing in a brief, almost horror-movie interlude before he finally comes in (over a minute into the track) rapping about how he’s “waiting on Superman, losing all patience” with a similar treatment done to his vocal track as was done to Crash’s. As far as album openers go, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything this year – especially within the realm of Hip Hop – that feels so soul-crushingly bleak.
This album feels very much a companion piece to Undun, mainly because both are concept albums charting a man’s spiral into darkness in a land of urban nightmares, culminating in a murder. But while Undun unraveled chronologically backwards, which allowed for the ending to become more musically optimistic as it moved into the realm of childhood and birth, And Then You Shoot Your Cousin gets no such luxury. The darkness of the content rides out all the way until the end of the album, culminating in the deceptively happy-sounding “Tomorrow”, featuring guest vocalist Raheem DeVaughn crooning about how “everybody needs an angel, everybody needs a smile” over sparse drums and piano. It takes a few listens to realize that the song is only a list of problems, with no solutions in sight. The way the piano descends back into dissonance at the very end reminds us that a concept album from The Roots, especially one with a title like this, is not a good place to look for a happy ending.
That abrupt melodic change at the end is a good representation of what makes And Then You Shoot Your Cousin so unique, not just amongst the group’s catalogue, but amongst modern popular music. While including instrumental tracks on a Hip Hop release is a common tactic that has been used to great effect by artists like J Dilla and The Beastie Boys, the technique is used in the most extreme format possible here.
Five years of playing on the Late Show with Jimmy Fallon has not only sharpened the group’s instrument playing abilities to incredibly impressive levels, but improved their songwriting abilities significantly as well. Tracks like “Dies Irae” are so complex and dark in their string arrangements that they are reminiscent of The Roots cluttered, complex 2002 masterpiece Phrenology, but also of experimental neo-classical composers like Schoenberg and Scriabin. It was probably about halfway through that track, that I decided that this was a great album.
In addition to “Dies Irae”, there are a LOT of references to church throughout the album. In fact, both music videos they have released from the album so far have been erie stop motion clips set mainly in a church. Church organs and wordless choir consistently feel nearly as prominent as rhymes and funky drumming do, giving the album a very unique aesthetic. This continuing motif contrasts heavily with the false hope brought up in the last track, which is what makes that song so heart-wrenching in the context of the full album.
While the story itself is a little less easy to decipher than Undun was, the central theme becomes obvious through the religious-referencing aspects of it. Sure, this is an album about gang violence and the horror and pain it causes in urban societies, but more than that, it is an album about the deceptive notion of salvation, whether it be religious, physical, or moral. By the end of the album the character (it wouldn’t be right to call him the protagonist) that Black Thought has been playing has basically given up on waiting for his “Superman”.
“The Dark (Trinity)”:
On “The Dark (Trinity)”, the album’s best track, he spits “we out of parrish, yet still a n***a still perishin / no idea how much time is left, fuck tryna cherish it”. Black Thought has never been known to be a particularly positive, uplifting rapper, but he and the Roots crew have outdone themselves with the gloom here. The last thing that a band who plays on national television five nights a week, and releases an album every other year on average needs to do is reinvent itself, but they continue to do so anyways. While …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is not their best album (Things Fall Apart still holds that title) or even their most interesting (still Phrenology), it is a nice reminder that The Roots still have great, unique stories to tell, even if they are heart-wrenching enough to ruin the rest of your day.
…And Then You Shoot Your Cousin (Album Stream):