Published May 20, 2014As the Roots have become more visible and successful, their last few album projects have become increasingly sombre affairs. So naturally, now that the Philadelphia hip-hop group has recently completed their absorption into "middle America" by becoming the house band on The Tonight Show, the group retains this tension in the form of their most challenging and arguably most polarizing album to date, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin.
The hard-won triumphs detailed on 2009's How I Got Over in the afterglow of Obama's historic first presidential victory have given way to the narratives on undun and now …And then You Shoot Your Cousin that find the Roots casting critical eyes on theories of a post-racial society, manifesting the voices and the experiences of those whose reality couldn't be further away from late-night television joviality.
Picking up from the orchestral suite that ended undun, ...&TYSYC retains a resolutely theatrical and experimental bent. The foreboding ambience of "Never" recalls Massive Attack's haunting melodies, while the bluesy "Black Rock" (using the same sample Black Milk deployed on "Deadly Medley") and gospel-tinged "Understand" highlight the album's sonically gritty undertones.
While the album showcases the band's equilibrium and by now unquestioned versatility, it does mean that amidst the intended dissonance and vocal cameos, Black Thought's verses are not as prominent. For rap purists, on a lean album that clocks in at under 40 minutes, this is a detriment, and his potent tour de force appearances here do little to dissuade that notion. Dice Raw and Greg Porn are able accomplices attempting to flesh out the characters in this album's narrative, but one does wonder what could have happened if Black Thought had handled the multi-tasking and pulled an Orphan Black on the proceedings. Maybe we will have to wait to hear more on his rumoured upcoming solo record The Talented Mr. Trotter.
But Questlove has always been the leader of the Roots and his current concerns are larger than making Black Thought's already widely recognized and established verbal dexterity the focal point via a slew of hot 16s (which has been the case on past albums). Questlove's recent essays for New York magazine's online site Vulture on the state of hip-hop, particularly his bemoaning of hip-hop's lack of galvanizing agency, underline this. With cover art from collagist Romare Bearden, and songs from Nina Simone and Mary Lou Williams woven into the sequencing, hip-hop's bricolage approach is applied across an uncommonly wide swath of black popular culture. But then again, this isn't exactly uncharted territory for the Roots. Perhaps this is a genuine case of the more things change, the more they stay the same. (Def Jam)