Let’s go back to the summer of 2010 for a second. The Roots were set to drop their ninth studio LP, How I Got Over. After two very dark records (Game Theory and Rising Down), HIGO brought a sense of optimism and closure to The Roots’ narrative. It was their first record of the Obama era (and their first as Jimmy Fallon’s house band), and songs like “Now or Never,” “The Day” and the title track felt like a major turning point for hip hop’s biggest underdogs. It seemed like they finally got that chip off of their shoulder and were finally content with their position in hip hop.
Four years later, The Roots are back with their eleventh record, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin. Once again they sound content, but not in the “good for them, they deserve it” manner of HIGO’s optimistic feel, but rather in a more uninspired way. In no way am I saying …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is a bad record – it’s probably a fucking great album (I’ve played this album much more than any other album released in 2014) – but it doesn’t feel like a Roots album and it’s dissatisfying. ATYSYC has a similar tone of undun – a bleak concept album detailing the struggles of urban youth. While undun (which I consider to be in the top tier of albums released this decade) told a narrative in reverse order, ATYSYC tells a story in a more impressionistic approach – scattering details, characters and plot movements over various tracks.
Cousin is also one of the more experimental albums from The Roots – think of this record as undun and Phrenology’s lovechild. Some of the weirder tracks work in the same vain as Kanye West’s Yeezus; Patty Crash’s nails-on-the-chalkboard vocals on “Never” are certainly going to force quite a few people to hit the skip button, but the song is one of the few times where The Roots play around with song arrangements and structure successfully. The most straight forward hip hop song on the album, “Black Rock” (which features the same sample used on Black Milk’s “Deadly Medley”) flips a sample in a very rough, crude way, which reminds me a lot of how Kanye’s “Bound 2.” However not all these moments are that well executed. “Dies Irae” an arrangement from Michel Chion that brings the momentum of the album to a startling halt. It’s as abrasive (or to some unlistenable) as Yeezus’ most abrasive moments. While “The Coming” flows nicely into the climatic “The Dark (Trinity),” it still sort of drags and seems unnecessarily long, which is a big waste on an album that is only 33 minutes long.
There is a lot of good stuff on this album, despite my previous 450 words telling you otherwise. Black Thought, 20 years in, is better now than he’s ever been, and every verse is technically flawless, both enlightening and poignant, endlessly quotable and not goddamn long enough. While Black Thought has seen less and less mic time since Rising Down, on Shoot Your Cousin, it’s damn near tragic. Rapping in general doesn’t get enough shine on this record, and again, it’s a shame because Thought, Greg P.O.R.N. and Dice Raw spare no words. One of the most frustrating parts of this album is that there is no Black Thought verse on the album’s best song – “Tomorrow.”
I think the main issue with …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is for the first time in their career, The Roots are not moving forward. It is even more apparent after playing undun after listing to Shoot Your Cousin all week. It’s slightly weirder, but less inspired and pretty much a low fat version of undun. For any other group, this would be a phenomenal album, and in a vacuum, it really is a great album with seven songs that I will play quite a bit this summer. But we’re not in a vacuum – The Roots have one of the greatest resumes in hip hop history, and this is probably one of the more forgettable moments of it.
1) Theme From the Middle of the Night (performed by Nina Simone)
2) Never (feat. Patty Crash)
3) When the People Cheer (feat. Greg P.O.R.N.)
4) The Devil (feat. Mary Lou Williams)
5) Black Rock (feat. Dice Raw)
6) Understand (feat. Dice Raw & Greg P.O.R.N.)
7) Dies Irae (feat. Michael Chion)
8) The Coming (feat. Mercedes Martinez)
9) The Dark [Trinity] (feat. Dice Raw & Greg P.O.R.N.)
10) The Unraveling (feat. Raheem DeVaughn)
11) Tomorrow (feat. Raheem DeVaughn)