opinion byAUSTIN REED
Something about being a bona fide musical collective almost explicitly invites ambiguity. Ever tried explaining to your unknowing friends the fundamental differences between Avey Tare and Panda Bear? Nine times out of ten, your only prize for the effort will be a head scratch and a subject change. It’s unnerving, especially when you consider that these collectives are oftentimes the most intuitive, most forward-facing examples of musical innovation. Years from now, you’ll look back and attribute every significant step forward (most of them, anyway) within the genre to the strides made by that collective. Which is all fine and good, but this isn’t a decade from now. It’s now, and right now, your friends have no idea what you’re talking about.
I think that’s where we are with The Roots. Despite the tangible fame attributed to being Jimmy Fallon’s backing band on The Tonight Show, and despite the semi-mainstream success garnered by Phrenology in 2002, The Roots have ultimately existed as a bastardized, oft-misunderstood version of themselves. Their footprint within the realm of pop culture is obvious, but their contribution to it isn’t. In fact (and unfortunately), chances are high that a majority of the population assumes they owe all their success to Jimmy Fallon.
This misunderstanding is no-doubt a by-product of two critical elements: unrelenting conviction and unbridled cognition.
The Roots have never clung to their principles for the sake of clinging. Their sentiments and opinions have only ever been delivered out of a visceral need to be free of the emotional burden that would amount if nothing were to be said at all. And this is the way it has always been. Since 1993, “compromise,” has never entered the equation.
Now, this wouldn’t be nearly as crucial of a talking point if it weren’t for the fact that every member of The Roots is a hyper-talented and alarmingly learned practitioner of his craft. These guys know how to play music, and their know-how stems explicitly from their appreciation of the source. They unabashedly draw inspiration from numerous geographic locations, decades and genres, and as a result, their sound is an overwhelmingly gentrified interpretation of whatever it sounds closest to at that particular moment (in most cases, it’s hip-hop).
But they never shift their focus, and …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin almost sounds like it was meant to convey this point as loudly and as directly as possible.
…And Then You Shoot Your Cousin might be The Roots’ bleakest album to date. Bearing in mind that it’s the eleventh full-length in a portfolio founded almost exclusively upon politically and socially polarizing content, I realize how hyperbolic of a declaration that may appear to be. But consider this: Questlove has never sounded tighter behind the trap. Black Thought speaks less like a lyricist and more like an evangelist defending his stance. Holistically, Cousin sounds remarkably lo-fi, as if it was one of the first albums recorded on Verve. And themes range from poverty (“Black Rock”) to religious abandonment (“Understand”), from street crime (“The Dark [Trinity]”) to redemption in the face of death (“The Unraveling”).
Okay, so the message and the sound aren’t a total departure from the rest of The Roots’ catalog. They’ve always possessed a knack for constructing sonic timelessness in the form of thematic freshness. But the nuances attached to …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, though not always palpable, add unassailable gravity to the product.
This gravity is no more apparent than on, “Never,” the album’s second and strongest track. Patty Crash adds a downright creepy vocal timbre to Black Thought’s out-the-gate lyrical aggression, and the result is a track as menacing as it is alluring. “Spiraling down, destined to drown / ‘Forever,’ is just a collection of nows,” Black Thought oozes, staring death in the face with rabid ferocity, and this is actually one of the more light-hearted verses.
From top to bottom, Cousin is executed with the kind of breakneck savagery you expect out of any decent hip-hop record. But this execution isn’t achieved without the help from a few old friends. Perennial collaborators Dice Raw, Greg Porn and Raheem DeVaughn make their fair share of appearances throughout, adding the depth necessary to take The Roots’ newest offering from pretty good to truly great.
“A life out of balance, a touch out of grasp,” Black Thought ruminates on, “The Unraveling,” and all of a sudden, the intent of …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin shows its face. Be it a stance on numerous social issues or a 21-year-old question related to the relevance of your life’s work, uncertainty is everywhere, it’s not going anywhere and it’s a really jaggged pill to swallow. Luckily, The Roots have spent more than two decades perfecting their own handwriting, and this album serves as the natural italic they have slowly adopted over time. It can’t be replicated, but years from now, I won’t be a bit surprised if the hip-hop universe isn’t trying its hardest to. B