The Roots have been simultaneously dabbling in Hip Hop as performance art and incorporating increased amounts of Indie Rock and stripped down Blues into their sound since 2010’s How I Got Over. Expected guests, such as fellow Soulquarians Common and D’Angelo from the Things Fall Apart days, have somewhat given way to the likes of Patty Crash, Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens. And instead of his boastful microphone pyrotechnics, Black Thought has showcased a toned down delivery in support of first-person narratives and the type of singing first showcased on 1995’s “Silent Treatment.” The change has worked because The Roots are an adept, Grammy-award winning band, and because the strategy has been executed almost flawlessly. But, now, three albums deep in concept territory, one can legitimately question if these albums are outliers or what to expect going forward.
And Then You Shoot Your Cousin plays out like a Hip Hop funeral dirge. It is sparse, melancholy and, at certain points, it may be one of The Roots’ most intentionally sonically dissonant albums since Phrenology. It’s also depressingly good, which makes it a bit of a confusing product in a Hip Hop landscape bifurcated by Golden Era romanticists and the turnt-up set. Here, the crew essentially mock both factions, making good on their description of the album as a satirical look at both Hip Hop and the larger community. From the project’s flippant title, to Thought’s nameless protagonist’s desire to buy some diamond teeth and “stick them niggas…take they cash,” nearly each violent and miserable bar is justified by the same cause: “Nigga, we out here tryin’ to eat.” That rationale is also applied to the greater forces outside of Hip Hop, with the sharpest critique leveled against capitalism.
In terms of production, this may be the most The Roots have consistently sounded like a live band on one of their studio albums in nearly 20 years. Questlove has made no secret of the fact the band samples themselves among other sources. But his snares, cymbal crashes and kicks have a noticeable pop on “The Dark,” and they’re seamlessly blended with sparse keys (“When The People Cheer”) and mopey organs (“Understand”). The art house turns are strategically placed. When executed well, they help advance the respective narratives, but in the case of “Dies Irae,” they just come across as ill timed and jarring. Either way, when Nina Simone opens by bellowing out the theme from Middle of the Night, it’s an indication the album won’t be cheery and upbeat.
This latest installation of The Roots’ concept album may be their most efficiently dour. When Black Thought expertly plays the role of the self-loathing guy at the strip club who stays there long enough to enjoy the hot wings, things reach a new emotional low. Somewhere around the time Dice Raw’s character ingests a cheeseburger and a 40 ounce for breakfast, things get lower. As always, the guests are melded to fit within the ensemble. And one such visitor, Raheem DeVaughn, ends things on an upbeat note with “Tomorrow.” Having logged approximately 20 years in the game and earned a gig as house band on The Tonight Show, The Roots have continued descending up the downward staircase of dark performance art for three consecutive albums. It’s a curious turn, but one that finds them as oddly whimsical and satisfying as ever.