Review Summary: undun.
With claim to classics upon classics, not to mention the heralded distinction of being one of the only hip-hop acts to avoid the pitfall that was the new millennium by disgorging brilliance at every turn, nobody should have expected this. It really seemed effortless for The Roots to maintain the mantle of “most consistent hip-hop act of all time ever”; they released strong albums every few years like clockwork, with nary a misstep, from 1995 all the way through to 2011. I’ll admit this is a foreboding intro, and things probably sound bad, but they really aren’t – this is
The Roots after all – it’s just not the same group that we’ve so long admired. …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
is more a product of Questlove’s band than Black Thought’s Legendary Roots Crew, which is to say, it’s more like the jangly free jazz riffing the group worked into undun
’s final “Redford” suite (“Will to Power,” specifically) than essentially anything else the group has ever done. Frankly, to call …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
a hip-hop album would be a bit misleading – Black Thought contributes a grand total of 6 verses on the album, and is usually accompanied by Roots veteran Dice Raw and youngblood Greg Porn – the album’s smattering of experimentalism is almost suffocating, rendering delineations like ‘hip-hop’ almost inconsequential.
This isn’t all to say that …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
is straight out of left field; a track like “When the People Cheer,” with its delicate piano backdrop and desperate, debauched storytelling rap wouldn’t have sounded at all out of place on 2011’s undun
. And the funky, groove-heavy “Black Rock,” so long as it isn’t rendered unlistenable thanks to Dice Raw’s dreadful singing, sounds like a sonic evolution of the style The Roots have been developing over their last two albums. In fact, most of the tracks Black Thought appears on are solid offerings that would work really well within the context of a consistent, cohesive album, but …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
is unfortunately rife with brusque interludes that punctuate the album more like, unnecessary commas than, something like, say, a smooth and illuminating semicolon; an interlude like “The Devil” makes sense within the context of the story the album attempts to tell, but sonically, as a transition from “When the People Cheer,” it feels more like tripping over the jagged ridge sullying an otherwise picturesque prairie. “Dies Irae”, Michael Chion’s electro/avant-garde/field recorded warcry of an interlude has some of the most interesting sounds of the album, but at under a minute, it feels emaciated, sledged between two of the album’s stunners (“Understand” and “The Coming/The Dark”) for seemingly no reason. At a measly 33 minutes of runtime, there’s plenty of occasion for development, which leaves us wondering why Questlove didn’t expand, sand, and varnish some of these clunky transitions.
The album picks up towards the late stages though; the raucous free jazz ‘solo’ of “The Coming” swaggers into an oppressive effluvium above which Mercedes Martinez reiterates her fragile chorus until the noxious air clears and flows blithely into “The Dark (Trinity),” the album’s lyrical centerpiece, with its heavy, deliberate verses and outstanding, singular flows from both Thought and Dice. “The Unraveling” is a somber release for Black Thought’s character within the album’s story, but moves almost jarringly into the major key and upbeat whistles of “Tomorrow,” whose final minute of undulating keys set the album to rest gingerly, if not serenely. It’s a taut and succinct wrap up to an album whose primary intention almost seems to embody these very descriptors.
I’ve briefly alluded to the ‘story’ of the album; …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
is another concept album from The Roots, but the problem is that unlike in undun
, its set up and delivery is muddled, and with only a handful of verses peppered across the album, it becomes difficult to follow the ideas presented here, especially given the various interludes insulating all the themes. More to the point, much like Childish Gambino’s latest album Because the Internet
and the latter part of Coheed and Cambria’s career, there isn’t enough here sonically
to make a listener care enough to discern the story. It’s almost ironic, given how …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
, with its sudden musical precipitations and developments often sounds like the score to a movie we’re supposed to see. But the audiovisual elements of the songs fail to incite our imagination, and we’re left struggling to comprehend the work’s plot. As solid an effort as this is from The Roots, a 33 minute album with such adventurous intentions means that parts of it feel sparse and wanting. Add to this that the album suffers from the minimal involvement of the group’s workhorse and undisputed star, Black Thought, and the final product is maybe the most disappointing release in The Roots’ long and decorated discography. It’s still a strong album with several standout moments, but these great moments are often hampered by the inchoate themes and parched ideas surrounding it, making the album feel at times unfinished. But I guess even the legends get outed as human sooner or later.