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Album Review: The Roots – …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin

3 min read

For the casual observer, Philadelphia’s favourite sons The Roots are best known as the house band for SNL alumnus Jimmy Fallon’s late night talk show. On the Tonight Show (and formerly Late Night) they take care of every musical aspect of the show from the clever choices for each guest’s walk-on music to backing musical guests on primary school instruments to a series of incredible “History of Rap” medleys with Justin Timberlake – The Roots are, musically speaking, unbelievably versatile and pretty much incapable of disappointment. For those of you who’ve drilled a little deeper, you’ll know that over 21 years and 10 albums, they’ve constantly stood on the cutting edge of hip hop’s evolution by refusing to yield to the trends of the day in favour of pushing the boundaries of what we expect from “urban” music. On their latest outing …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter (the original nucleus of The Roots’ engine room) once again bring a vaguely postmodern artfulness to a genre widely renowned for “beats, bitches and bling”.

TheRoots-AndThenYouShootYourCousinUnderstandably, high-brow hip hop can be a tough sell for some, but when you can tick every box on a PR checklist at your day job like The Roots do, you can afford to take some risks when you go into the studio. This is a notion to which Questlove and co. adhere pretty closely on album #11 and much like 2011’s Undun, it’s a loosely structured concept album shining a light on the struggles of African American life today. Opening with Theme From The Middle Of The Night, an eerie Nina Simone interlude setting a far darker mood than the smiley pop culture ubiquity they exude night after night. Following on is the heavyweight collage of Never, with some avant-garde strings/choral vocals and a hook from fellow Philadelphian Patty Crash, it makes for an interesting introduction.

Lead single When The People Cheer with its tinkling piano and crispy drum sounds sits a little closer to the “neo-soul” sound that many synonymize with anything Questlove touches and The Devil – an almost field-holler – again goes to show that …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is no run-of-the-mill hip hop release. Black Rock, with a verse from regular Roots collaborator Dice Raw assumes the production aesthetic of ‘60s soul and it totally works whereas on Understand, the salty Hammond organ and drunken, J Dilla inspired groove slam so hard that you might just pull a neck muscle from getting down too hard.

After a retuning-the-radio interlude in Dies Irae, Mercedes Martinez (half of ‘90s R&B outfit Jazzyfatnastees) takes a gorgeous turn on The Coming. It starts out as a fairly innocuous piano ballad before surreptitiously descending into some more out-of-control avant-jazz. The deliberate minimalism of The Dark (Trinity) is a perfect platform upon which Black Thought, Dice and yet another Philly boy – up-and-coming MC Greg Porn expound about the grind of street life in between some more high-concept, experimental classical backing.

Some might say that the crowning jewel of …ATYSYC is Washington D.C. native Raheem DeVaughn. Inimitably soulful with vocal cords smoother than an 80-year-old cabernet, his one-two punch of melancholy yearning on The Unraveling and “everything’s-gonna-be-alright” joie de vie on Tomorrow bring the record to a surprisingly cheery close.

As with almost every Roots album, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is fairly loose with genres and this is possibly one of the keys to their longevity (y’know, other than just being objectively excellent at making music of any kind). While the going is pretty tough at times for listeners who err more towards the talk show house band they see every night, it’s great to hear The Roots, as ever, expanding further and further into the musical stratosphere without paying any mind to what a rap record “should” be.