The Roots - ...and Then You Shoot Your Cousin

The Roots' newest record pushes their music to unprecedented places that are not strictly confined to hip-hop.

Additional Info


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"

1. Theme from the Middle of the Night
One of three songs lifted from other artists, The Roots utilize the majority of Nina Simone's "Theme from the Middle of the Night" to set the scene for ...and Then You Shoot Your Cousin. Connecting the dots between this and the other "performances" by other artists featured reveals a lot about this album's inspirations and reference points.7.5
2. Never
For how minimal this song is, there's a number of ideas commingling that seamlessly come together to form the album's strongest track. Introductory snare hits give way to choir singing and piano chords, providing an expansive sonic backdrop for Patty Crash's haunting hook before stripping it to nothing. Cello plucks and horror movie warbles build atop skeletal dub bass and disappear as quickly as your ears can process it, prefacing Black Thought's verse which is accompanied solely by Questlove's drums. Layers you didn't even realize were there fall away until the raps are anchored by nothing but a kick and a snare, but the final chorus ends big by bringing everything back into the fold. Holding back and drawing out individual portions of the song, it's a prime example of the album's tightly-controlled song-building.9.5
3. When the People Cheer
Unlike undun's defined protagonist and plot, Cousin's amorphous theme follows multiple characters and a non-specific storyline. Here, Black Thought and Greg Porn introduce us to a pair of garden variety dirtbags over a tinkling piano line and straightforward drum beat. The song is aided by Modesty Lycan's earworm hook, but the verses feel a bit thin lyrically. Black Thought pulls off a technically impressive rap spotlighting a sex addict but focuses more on strip club terminology than real dissection of character. The overall execution works well enough but there's more profundity implied than actually realized.8.0
4. The Devil
The brevity of the second interlude track, "performed" by composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams, allow it to play like a standard song intro sample, though the proclamation that "the devil looks a lot like you and I" comes off as concise an album thesis as any of the others.7.5
5. Black Rock
Even with a full band and the newfound financial stability to execute high-falutin concepts, The Roots will still make a beat verbatim from a sampled record. Black Rock's "Yeah Yeah" is consistent with the rest of the record's vibe, featuring a funky and driving piano line that bleeds into different directions. As hip-hop a move it is to re-appropiate an original song so egregiously, there's actually very little rapping here. We get quick 8 bar verses from Black Thought and Dice Raw and a pretty bleak yet peppy chorus, but good chunks of the song are instrumental. It's a standout track but a testament to how brief the album's raps are as a whole.8.0
6. Understand
One of the album's best in terms of straight rapping, "Understand" ruminates on God, crime, and redemption with some particularly strong imagery. It's a bouncy track with rich organ tones that set the scene for Black Thought, Dice Raw, and Greg Porn to lay down their underworld gospel. Both verses are poignant and raw, with Black Thought taking an assertive approach as Greg Porn tackles the subject more playfully.8.5
7. Dies Irae
Throwing in an excerpt from Michel Chion's noise classic "Requiem" seems at first an intentionally jarring and left-field choice, but with further listening it makes sense in the context of the album. Overloud and off-putting, it's likely to be a skip for the impatient but it represents the theme of chaotic surroundings and just how wide-ranging The Roots musical influences are.8.0
8. The Coming
A beautiful piano and voice duet spiraling into bombastic free-jazz dissonance makes sense coming out of "Dies Irae", and here The Roots are able to marry inspiration from both traditional and experimental compositions. Mercedes Martinez has a gorgeous voice, here affected ever so slightly with effects, and she closes the song singing over distortions where there once were luscious harmonies.8.5
9. The Dark (Trinity)
Another rap-centric track on an album that shifts around considerably, the sparse production provides space for Black Thought, Dice Raw, and Greg Porn, who all display their best verses on the record. The longest song on the album, there's more room for the rappers to really expand on the concept and on their own flows, pushing further with lines and voicing to great effect. Every line is powerful in message, rhyme patterning, and stylistics, while still managing to maintain the understated presence consistent with The Roots' oeuvre.9.0
10. The Unraveling
One of the Cousin's most dark, haunting, and sonically beautiful tracks, "The Unraveling" features a startling hook from Raheem DeVaughn that will stick with you. Slightly tweaking the song structure at points, The Roots has the good sense to keep this one generally untouched in terms of the latter half of the album's experimental leanings. It's a highlight that would've worked as an album closer.9.5
11. Tomorrow
The jaunty piano line and whistle chorus are a bit of a departure from the stark "The Unraveling" that precedes it, and Raheem DeVaughn's lyrics and singing are considerably more upbeat. A decent enough song in it's own right, it's placement on the album didn't work for me, feeling jarring in the opposite way that "Dies Irae" was (though it does close abruptly with increasingly violent piano stabs, which I'm definitely here for). I might have a bias for colder endings and the song felt too smiley for how dark the rest of the album got at times, but standing alone it works better.7.5
Written by Jack Spencer
A freelance music writer from Minneapolis that has been featured in the City Pages, Bitch Magazine, 2DopeBoyz, The AV Club, Consequence of Sound, Thought Catalog, and more.

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