ALBUM: ...and Then You Shoot Your Cousin
ARTIST: The Roots
From the opening of The Roots' eleventh album, an unflipped minute-and-a-half grab from a 1959 Nina Simone record, I'm reminded of Simone's famous assertion that she rejected the term "jazz" and instead called her work "black classical music". A similar statement could be made for The Roots—ostensibly a hip-hop band, but encompassing more terrain than that handle provides. Their early run of excellent neo-soul live rap albums live on in the record collections of hip-hop heads everywhere, but their latest projects have followed their experimental streak further than ever before. With 2011's excellent undun, a concept record telling the tragic tale of a street hustler backwards from his death, The Roots got especially ambitious thanks, ironically, to getting a day job. The financial stability and accelerated songwriting process that came with being Jimmy Fallon's house band gave the group room to grow in directions they hadn't been able prior, and the resulting album stands as one of the best they've ever put together. Their recent follow-up, ...and Then You Shoot Your Cousin, continues even further down the same path, pushing their music to unprecedented places that are not confined to hip-hop strictly.
Cousin is once again an existential concept album, though there's much less direct narrative or particular theme as on undun. It's a murky telling of the lives of characters similar to the latter album's protagonist Redford Stevens in less clearly defined vignettes. If this looser format can sometimes lead to less complex lyrics, primarily it benefits from not limiting itself to a singular idea. This is an album that sets a scene rather than focuses on one particular aspect; it concerns not simply the players in the madness of the inner city, but the madness itself. The raps are not solely driving the story, and the mutating sounds surrounding the character's voices paint just as much of a picture. It captures the chaotic experience of modern society by building tension musically, rising and falling between smooth harmonies and stark dissonance. Where undun flirted with off-kilter songwriting techniques in the final four songs, Cousin will throw bursts of free-jazz atonality or noise music distortions in the middle of songs at any given moment. The songwriting is probably their most layered and complicated, managing to stay within their neo-soul wheelhouse even with so many experimental elements.
This does mean the rapping can take a backseat at times. Black Thought is used relatively sparingly, often dropping in for brief periods between guest musicians. It's a much different record than anything The Roots did in the 90's, and it might not be for you if you're infatuated with that period in their career. It's heavy in scope and in content, toying with the avant-garde in order to accentuate what's always been great about the group. It's a short album, clocking in at just over a half hour, but there's so much to take in that multiple listens will be prompted and rewarded. Possibly the group's most inventive songwriting to date, it's best taken as a whole to feel embedded in the album's distinctive atmosphere.
"I was a shot away, but I never got away"