When The Roots signed to Def Jam in 2006, Jay Z was presiding over the once powerful label, one that had slipped in to a decline deemed scary enough for the president to release a hurried Kingdom Come. The Roots were neo-rap legends in the underground, masterfully infusing modern jazz with a live band atmosphere, and a lead emcee who was regarded as one of the heavy hitters. They'd also spawned a massive crossover hit, The Seed (2.0), which helped their 2002 record Phrenology achieve platinum status. So what do you think Jay Z said to Questlove when they discussed their upcoming record? "Please, no radio singles. I don’t want no radio". THANK GOD (or Hova in this instance). Since then, The Roots have embodied everything that is desperately missing from mainstream hip hop. They've pushed boundaries (Wise Up Ghost) by working with rock legends, they've made the ultimate ghetto soul splashes with John Legend, solidifying his credibility at a time when it was slipping in to an MTV induced blur (Wake Up!), and they've continued to diversify a sound that is a testament to Questlove's encyclopedic musical brain.
...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is a concept record, in the vein of Undun, however rather than limit themselves to a single individual voice or character, the band have expanded to include all of those noises, all of those personalities that you encounter in their neighbourhood. With such a bevy of inherent talent gravitating around this group, no less than 29 contributing artists in the writing and production credits, there's always the concern that the resultant output is a mish mash of half thought ideas, or fully thought brain waves that clash. What The Roots have traditionally done well is control the chaos that surrounds them, and especially that which constantly blares inside the heart, Questlove. In an interview with Spin in 2013, he explained that his mood is quite volatile, and his creative output is greatly impacted by that. Yet The Roots have always managed to stay one step ahead of the rest of the hip hop world, through a combination of hard work, insane talent, and a fireproof will to represent those that surround them in the everyday world. Not the celebrity world. Not the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, not hanging out backstage doing shots with Tarantino. The real people who sit at home after a hard day providing for themselves and their families, watching these guys on TV. Sitting there thinking 'Shit man, these guys have it MADE'. If only they picked up a record. Black Thought and his band have a direct line to their soul.
And it's not to be taken lightly. This is a courageous route to take, and Jay Z's comment comes in to it. Questlove said "'I never had a label president beg me for an art record before.", and their output since that fateful day has been border line crazy, when there are probably hundreds of Happy's or Blurred Lines' tucked away inside those musical skulls. ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is just an extension of this courage. Weighing in at just 34 minutes, and with no marketable single, it's a tapestry of stories painted on a canvas of disconcerting soul and jazz music, touched heavily by downtrodden beats that mimmick the kind of suicidal work that Mac Miller is putting out at the moment. Opener Theme From The Middle Of The Night, as performed by Nina Simone, is instructive as to the direction this record takes. The line "Wake and begin their day in the middle of the night" cuts through any kind of class structure, taken literally and metaphorically it is powerful imagery to trust in as an opening statement.
From here, The Roots and their collaborators expand on this theme. Second track Never is desperately downbeat, and we find Black Thought peddling his most intense form of cathartic therapy, "What is this gotta be brave / When into the night I'm going to go quietly mane" "Life's a bitch and then you live". His first impact is one of severe melancholy, bordering on major depressive. There's few let-ups. On When The People Cheer he takes the almost delicate piano riff and flips it in to an MF DOOM style monotonal celebration of the other side of a party life. The dirty underworld of Ibiza, or a version of Lil Wayne if he wasn't rich; just partying and addicted to sex. The slow creep of the morose, building in to a stampede that is satisfied by the flesh, "I'm thankful that / she keeps providing the place for me to be unfaithful at".
One of the criticisms I will level at the record right now is that we never see enough of Black Thought. Since Organix in 1993, and his lyrical acrobatics on tracks like The Anti-Circle and Grits, he has constantly been at the forefront of underground conscious rap. Spirituality is usually his chosen topic, and certainly on 2009's How I Got Over this was the most potent. However on ..And Then he darkens his view, honing in on death on more than one occasion. "A timetraveler headed to a night catches us / The final stop on the line for all passengers..." is indicative of his message. Yet on the track, The Unravelling, he only spits 10 lines. It's a similar case elswhere, with his only real prolific efforts being The Dark (Trinity), featuring the obligatory "I'm old now watch me work hastag in to a verse", and Never. Of course he is playing a part in each of these tracks, and you can liken him more to an actor, or a tool utilised by the band to delve deeply in to the personalities of the characters they are creating. Despite the fact we see little of Black Thought the man, his dexterity and cadence is such that the record would be much richer if he were to contribute more often.
The manner in which it is layered is quite haphazard as well. There are instrumental interludes worthy of the latest acid jazz release, however they grind uncomfortably up against the desperate brilliance of The Dark (Trinity), the Kanye-inspired soul grab that is Understand, and the saloon style piano japery on Black Rock. Oddly, the record finishes with the almost upbeat Tomorrow, ensuring that the cycle of narrative is completed, as we suffer through the inevitable challenges faced by the protagonists only to be met by an admittedly cautious resolution that there is hope, despite the fact they've just rapped about death and depression for 31 minutes.
The problem with ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is it is wildly inconsistent. There are moments of pure brilliance, and everytime Black Thought graces the microphone you shut up and listen because his demeanour demands attention. Each character he embodies takes on their own life, and he alone carries the concept to it's end. The rest of the band seem restless, jumping around through musical interludes that bare little resemblance to the overall mood. More Black Thought please, the man is a genius.