The Roots continue to ‘transcend’ the confines of hip-hop on the ambitious …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
The Roots • …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin • Def Jam • US Release Date: May 19, 2014
The notion that “hip-hop don’t stop” is certainly a true statement as the genre hasn’t really ended, but for a while, the trendy thing from more intellectual MCs – notably Nas – was asserting that “Hip Hop is Dead”. Perhaps it was an exaggeration, but Nas definitely had a valid point back in 2006, just as The Roots seem to have a valid claim not completely dissimilar on latest LP, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin. Cousin definitely finds The Roots in conceptual form, waving the finger at the superficiality and shallowness of the rap industry these days, both musically speaking and as far as overall lifestyle, persona, and presentation.
The album opens with Nina Simone, who performs “Theme From Middle Of The Night”. The odd feature of the legendary artist serves as the first hint that …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin isn’t your standard album in the least. It also suggests there is darker, more meaningfully subject matter/themes to be explored. Simone’s performance is beautiful, haunting, and enigmatic. That said, is anything less than those adjectives expected from a legend?
“Never” is the first track to feature The Roots, though vocalist Patty Crash is the featured artist at the onset, once more extending the ‘haunting’ nature of Simone’s “Theme From Middle of the Night”: “Street dreams, close your eyes / say goodbye to my memory / street dreams, this is the moment / the moment that feels like forever / this is the end to where I began / and it feels like forever…I look down, all I see is never.” Black Thought delivers a compelling, mysterious verse, that details the hardships of life and seems to explore the ever popular mindset of ‘escapism’: “I was born faceless in an oasis / folks disappear here and leave no traces / no family ties n***a no laces / less than a full deck n***a no aces…Life is a b*tch and then you live / until one day by death you’re found…” “Never” requires a couple of listens to digest everything, but it definitely is a worthwhile, intellectual listen. D.D. Jackson’s string arrangements are compelling as well.
Standout single “When The People Cheer” features rhymes from Greg Porn and Black Thought, in addition to sung vocals by Modesty Lycan. Porn opens up the joint touting a theme of the materialism of fame: “Lights, camera, chemical reaction / attracted to a body of lies with fat a$$es / thank the most high for the high of high fashion / my art of war is killer Couture, denim assassin.” He goes on to deliver compelling wordplay, exemplified by such lines as “Living on the run like somebody tryna burn fat / I don’t give a f*ck, now maybe that’s abstinence.” Following Modesty Lycan’s hook discussing how many folks overvalue fame above truly important things, Black Thought plays upon it referencing a number of shallow trends that seem to dominate hip-hops including strippers, mollies, and The Lonely Island’s “D**k in a Box”. All said and done, “When The People Cheer” is a rap song that is something of a ‘call to action’ about the excess of hip-hop culture.
“The Devil” once more looks to artistry outside of The Roots, this time to legendary jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams. The brief interlude once more has a haunting, intellectually inciting quality about it, foreshadowing what is to transpire from the Roots. What follows is “Black Rock”, a track that samples “Blackrock Yeah Yeah” as performed by Blackrock. “Black Rock” features rhymes from Dice Raw and Black Thought. Dice Raw cleans house from the beginning, pointing a sarcastic, accusatory finger: “Hey what’s for breakfast / same as yesterday / oh that’s right cheeseburger and a 40 ounce…” Essentially, Raw suggests it’s more of the same from rappers in general while remaining in the ‘character’ of the same rapper whose game he doesn’t necessarily respect. On the hook, Raw continues the lyrical slaughtering, asserting “the only think in front of me is a bullet in the head / they hoping one day that they find me dead /until then I make a place in this world / for me and my baby girl”. “Black Rock”, like “When The People Cheer” is yet another brilliant track.
“Understand” features Dice Raw (hook), Black Thought (verse one), and Greg Porn. The cynicism is present from the onset, much like the previous cuts. “People ask for God, ‘til the day he comes / see God’s face – turn around and run”, Raw spits on the hook, “God sees the face of a man / shaking his head, says ‘he’ll never understand’”. It seems as if ‘death’ and afterlife are in play here, highlighted when Black Thought spits “Yeah I was trappin’ money, flippin’ like a spatula / now put that sucker in a box like Dracula / I led the devil in a dance.” The balance between godliness and temptation continues as Porn essentially blasphemes against everything ‘holy’: “Holy sugar, Honey, Ice tea / I guess that’s a prayer for a player like me / in my church clothes bakin’ buzz on The Bible / the sweet temptation of my granddaddy’s rifle…” He closes out his verse swinging as well: “So I can pay for my sins on PayPal / or own a holy ghost, a Greyhound.” Ultimately, “Understand” suggests that these rappers just don’t get it; they don’t understand.
“Dies Irae” – another brief interlude – is extracted from the fourth movement of “Requiem”, composed by French experimental composer, Michel Chion. The Chion interlude precedes “The Coming”, which features vocals by Mercedes Martinez. Another non-Roots number, and conceptual/experimental in its own right, escapism once more prevails. “I hear somebody screaming / again racing for the fall / close my eyes but I never wonder / I have seen it all”, Martinez delivers mysteriously. It’s no more odder or off-putting than the brilliant arrangements by D.D. Jackson, as performed by the innovative Metropolis Ensemble. Here, all preconceived notions of ‘hip-hop’ are tossed out the window, as the transcendence of the sometimes one-dimensional genre is epitomized here.
“Even though I wish I could be spared my embarrassment,” spits Black Thought, “I’m a n***a, other n***as pale in comparison”. Da-yum! “The Dark (Trinity)” arrives, featuring foreboding piano and dusty, soulful drums within the production work. Once more, the MCs reassert themselves: Black Thought, Greg Porn, and Dice Raw. Hook-less, “The Dark” is straight rap, no questions asked. Porn’s verse stands out, particular lyric “I’d rather O.D. than be the next O.G.”, a definite referendum on the rap game in its current state. Raw gets It in as well, noticeably as he spits “Cause don’t nobody wanna die / but everybody trying to get rich though / but the f*cked up thing about that / these lil n***as don’t know how to get rich so…” The ‘real’ MCs are legitimately out for blood.
Penultimate track “The Unraveling” is the first of two cuts to feature underrated soul singer Raheem DeVaughn with Black Thought handling rhyming duties here. “The Unraveling” seems true to its title, as it seems to be the ‘break down’ or sorts. That breakdown is widely interpretable, whether you view it as the washed up MC coming to the realizations of his status, or a man who has lived shallowly finally being redeemed as a “new man”. “The Unraveling” again plays once more on holiness versus blasphemy, with DeVaughn providing the evidence of this with lyrics including “being reborn”, being “free of my sins today”, and “a man with no future”. Additionally, the production remains mysterious and unsettling.
The album ends surprisingly optimistically with “Tomorrow”, a growth from shallowness to seemingly a ‘new day’ – if that’s how you read into the concept of the album. Raheem DeVaughn shines beautifully on this soul track, which fits, yet doesn’t. It fits in the respect that this is the transformation of an immature soul to one who seems to value what’s important in life – not fame or excess. It doesn’t fit in the sense it is (1) too optimistic for such a dark album (2) it feels/is more of a solo feature for DeVaughn than a Roots feature. Then again, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin brings in several different artists who aren’t part of The Roots bill. Regardless of how one views the ‘fit’, the song is definitely ‘fire’.
Ultimately, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is another fine addition to The Roots’ rich, genre-bending discography. There is truly more jam-packed into this brief 33 ½-minute LP then is likely to be picked up from a first listen. That said, at 33 ½ minutes, it also incredibly ambitious – perhaps too much so. Connecting and assembling the concept that The Roots were going for definitely stretches the duration of this album out. Whether or not that is a pro or con is for each individual listener to decide for his or herself. From a personal perspective, this Roots fan is onboard.
Favorites: “When The People Cheer”; “Black Rock”; “The Dark”; “Tomorrow”