…And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
Reviewed by: Ari Roth
It takes more than three minutes for the first verse from “Black Thought” to kick in on The Roots’ new album. Before that, an extended Nina Simone sample, muffled and unsettling drums and strings, and weirdly processed vocals usher in what is one of the strangest and most uncompromising records to emerge from the critically acclaimed, long-running project. After 27 years as a band, The Roots have been perhaps unfairly typecast as a dependable, relatively traditionalist hip hop band that is more likely to appease critics and longtime fans than to challenge or radically subvert expectations. This new album seems designed to actively break that image, a dusty, nocturnal, uneasy record that zeroes in on a singular atmosphere. Although The Roots are known for their use of a live band rather than samples, the production on the record has a dark, degraded, monochromatic sound that is redolent of the low fidelity crunch of an old sampler capturing grooves from vinyl, particularly on tracks like “Black Rock.” The album’s runtime of just over 33 minutes is concise by any standard, particularly in a genre where records tend to be sprawling, varied affairs. One can imagine that drummer and bandleader ?uestlove, himself a critic-like music fan who obsesses over artistic narratives, might have taken some inspiration from another reductionist, uncompromising recent hip hop record.
Despite such experimentation, The Roots remain relative traditionalists at heart, never sacrificing the lyrical intricacy and slightly off-kilter boom bap funk grooves (such as on “Understand”) that have allowed them to thrive in a field where artists have notoriously brief periods of success. Their willingness to follow such a relatively conventional song with a lengthy, abrasive sample of French musique concréte composer Michel Chion is representative of the tension at play on the album, a constant push-pull between experimentation and tradition, past, present and future, a dynamic that is at the heart of much great music. The influence of 20th century avant garde classical music is again found on “The Coming,” which dissolves into dissonant piano and orchestral stabs in its latter half. The brightest ray of light on the album comes at the very end, with “Tomorrow,” a comparatively straightforward song with a joyful, major key piano figure and uplifting vocals from Raheem DeVaughn. It’s a striking moment of clarity and joy that feels well earned in the wake of the knotty, often bleak turmoil of the rest of the record. Naturally, not content to end the album so unambiguously, The Roots close the song with a rumbling piano cluster that fades into the distance, like a single dark, ominous cloud on the horizon of a sunny day.
…And Then You Shoot Your Cousin may not be The Roots’ definitive statement, and it may very well be consigned historically as a mere curiosity in their vast catalogue, but it is also their most compelling statement in years. It’s a brave and unusual record that rewards patience and immersion.