The Roots - ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
Release Date: May 19, 2014
Record Label: Def Jam
There are an infinite number of reasons to like The Roots. For one, the hip-hop group has put out more than a few classic records, and even the ones that don't reach that status are still fantastic. The fact that they are a traditional band while the rest of hip-hop has moved away from live instrumentation (or anything that resembles traditional instruments at all) is at the very least commendable, but it's never worn as a crutch. They're the kind of hip-hop group that your out of touch parents can appreciate, and this coupled with their day job as Jimmy Fallon's backing band on Late Night makes them accessible in a lot of ways that many hip-hop acts aren't to the general public. They're just an incredibly likable band. Perhaps the best thing about The Roots, however, is that 11 studio albums in, these guys are continuing to challenge not only themselves but also their audience.
The Roots have always existed on the fringes of hip-hop, and with their new studio album, ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, they sit on the outside as they often do, but this time they look in and analyze the genre and community. The album has been called a satire by ?uestlove and Black Thought, and that sentiment comes across very strongly from the moment the album starts. The album is almost set up like a play, and with songs like “Never” and “When The People Cheer,” you can almost imagine the stage production that would occur if this thing were to become a full fledged play. A somber piano drives these songs forward, and the mood is dreary and defeated. The world building that occurs on the album is unprecedented, with each song's composition reflecting the urban decay the characters are surrounded by.
Like their previous album Undun, ATYSYC is a concept album, but this time there are multiple characters to follow as opposed to just one protagonist driving the story. The characters range from a rapper trying to find his place in the industry while struggling to support himself (“When The People Cheer”), someone struggling with their faith (“Understand”), drug dealers trying to make their living on the streets (“The Dark (Trinity)"), and many more. Black Thought teams up with frequent Roots collaborators Dice Raw and Greg Porn to give voices to these characters, and the three incredibly talented MC's give them a ton of life and personality, spitting lines that build up the characters to be more than one dimensional caricatures of common stereotypes.
Despite its run time, ATYSYC is an incredibly dense record, with layers upon layers of content to be delved into. The lyrics alone will have you wanting to come back and pick up aspects of the stories you may have missed on the first listen or two (or more; again, this thing is dense), but even further beyond that is the musicality of it all. Being Jimmy Fallon's backing band gives The Roots a way to harness their craft, and from the way ?uestlove talks in interviews, it sounds like these guys are playing together constantly even when they aren't on screen. That really comes through here, and each performance is as tight as you would expect it to be while still retaining a looseness that lets the songs breathe and sound natural. As mentioned earlier, things are kept rather dark in terms of the tone throughout, but at the end “Tomorrow” comes through with bright chords and a steady beat to give a tone of hopefulness to an otherwise dystopic record.
Given the title of the recent essays ?uestlove has written for Vulture ("How Hip-Hop Failed Black America;" I highly suggest you read them), some might get the idea that The Roots are attempting to criticize the current culture and bring it under fire. That's not exactly the case, as The Roots themselves are heavily involved in that very culture with their role of backing up and working with many guest performers who roll through Jimmy Fallon's show. No, the much more likely idea here is that The Roots are simply analyzing and bringing attention to something that oft gets forgotten in today's hip-hop landscape: the people who haven't made it out of the worn down areas rappers claim to come from. They take things to the extreme in their examples, but the picture painted resonates. There's no real logical conclusion as to what it all means, and The Roots understand that. That's part of why they made the album so short; so that you can put the time in and come to a conclusion yourself.
Good review, I really liked the album also. And those essays ?uestlove has written are very thought provoking.
The other day I was talking about the show and the band with my parents, who are starting to really like the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon but, my dad doesn't like the Roots for some reason and it threw me off because obviously they are very talented, and like you said, incredibly likeable.