Wednesday, June 4, 2014

album review: '...and then you shoot your cousin' by the roots

Yeah, I know this review is late. There's a reason for that: for a band like The Roots, you want to make sure you're getting things right.

And at this point, after going through The Roots' massive and critically acclaimed discography, I'm a little lost where to even start. Beginning in the early 90s, the band started as an alternative hip-hop act fronted by one of the most lyrically dexterous MCs to ever pick up the microphone and a fusion of jazz and conscious hip-hop to create some impressively insightful rap I've ever heard. And it wasn't just the fact that they've easily made four classic albums, but that the albums they made hold up astoundingly well. There might have been brief moments of experimentation with the times, but I could give you a record like Things Falling Apart right now and it'd still be accessible and definitely worth your time.

Now if we were looking at albums from The Roots that I'd brand as my favourites... man, it's a tough choice, but it'd probably come down to a split between the groove-rich, experimental and melody-rich Phrenology and the haunted, aching sadness of Undun, the latter being the most recent Roots album released before this one. That album is one that I've long expected The Roots would make, now that with the stability of being Jimmy Fallon's backing band they have the freedom to take more risks and get weirder. Because Undun is a concept album exploring the life in reverse of a black man trying to make it out of the trap, and while I wish the rapping had painted a little more of a stark picture, that was never their intent. What Black Thought and the rest of the band delivers is a hazy enough portrait that many could likely see resembling themselves, and combined with the soulful undercurrents, the personal yet reflective lyrics, and incredible melodies, make it easily one of the best albums of the decade thus far, at least for me. 

So when I heard The Roots were making another concept album with ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin this year, I was psyched, and while it might be late, I was determined that I was going to cover this album at some point, even if it is nearly a month late. So how was it?

Well, this is a fascinating case, because I did not expect this from The Roots, because as a concept album, this is about the furthest from pure hip-hop The Roots have ever gone. Not only that, it's the sort of record that thanks to its tone and presentation that I guarantee it'll alienate a lot of critics, especially for those expecting this sort of album to have a specific sound from The Roots in approaching this subject matter. But you know... I dig it, even if I do think that a few tweaks to this record could have made it a tad more effective in conveying its intended tone and message.

So let's start the first important fact: this album is a satire of modern hip-hop. Hell, the title makes that obvious, the excerpt from the KRS-One lyric pointing out just what can happen when consequences for shallow living are ignored and treated carelessly. And this album takes the tropes of modern gangsta, trap, and luxury rap and skewers them lyrically with the cutting wordplay you'd expect from Black Thought. And unlike Undun's specific character that the album follows, this is a much broader portrait of many different rappers and situations. 'Never' rings as a script from the black youth of America, who look up to the rappers on 'When The People Cheer', a song viciously eviscerating the stripper-obsessed hedonism embodied by artists like 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne - although they both wish they could step with this level of wordplay. 'Black Rock' dives into grimy hood rap with a striking level of detail, and 'Understand' tackles the faux-religious trappings of some hip-hop and rips the fragile justification of it all to pieces. The juxtaposition between that, the noisy explosion of 'Dies Arae', and the mournful soul of 'The Coming', a despondent look at how street rap becomes routine, is one of the best on the record and can become genuinely haunting. And then the album's themes are hammered forward again, attacking the obsessions with cash, drugs, and violence and exposing the hollow decadence and hypocrisy of all three. And in a move that calls starkly to mind Pharaohe Monch's most recent album PTSD, The Roots bring the final two tracks to the edge of death and despair with the breaking timbre of 'The Unraveling' before showing a solitary beam of hope in the soulful 'Tomorrow' - and unlike PTSD, the ambiguous ending thematically is played much more subtly, with only a shift to minor chords, and it comes across much better.

And the wordplay is goddamn stellar. Black Thought is a consistently underrated spitter of impressively nuanced and insightful rhymes, and he definitely holds his own here, able to speak in the arch concepts exposing the hypocrisy and shallowness of modern mainstream hip-hop but at the same time being able to embody those characters so effectively in order to satirize them. And yet despite this, he is featured less on this album than ever before, with a great focus on sung vocals in a more operatic fashion, which for the most part aren't bad. I'll admit not really being a fan of the girlish vocals on 'Never', but they fit the tone well enough, and I definitely liked Raheem DeVaughn's more soulful delivery. On the other hand, there are moments such on 'The Devil' that could have had more impact if used a little more deftly.

Because make no mistake, this album doesn't consistently have the grit and grime that used to characterize some of The Roots' other 'dark' albums, especially in the instrumentation and production. Most of the tones are very clear, mostly driven by dreary keyboards, mournful strings and echoing percussion, with the big exceptions being the grimy guitar on 'Black Rock' and the organ on 'Understand' - both of which I really liked, by the way. This, combined with some of the symphonic vocals and the bleak tone gives the album a very symphonic and gothic feel - which by its presentation isn't always subtle. And while I don't mind the step in this direction - I've got a huge passion for symphonic and gothic music - I don't quite think it was done as well as it could have been. For starters, there wasn't a lot of consistency in the vocal production - at points it was clear as day, but at other points the mic pickup felt of distinctly lower quality, and while I really loved the fade-in piano melody of 'The Coming', Mercedes Martinez's vocals seemed too close to the front of the mix or the production just a shade too rough. Or take that 'The Devil' interlude - I love the idea of the sample, but they could have gone with a fuller choir or gotten rid of the gospel counter-melodies, because it gets close to be sounding a little silly when placed the way it is on this record.

But the issue here is bigger, because this is definitely an album that feels less like a solid piece and more of a selection of vignettes, and while the musical transitions are excellent, the lyrical and tonal consistency is a little more scattershot. And when you choose to use symphonic elements and go broader instrumentally on pieces of this album, it loses even more flow, especially when the production quality on the samples and instrumentation is as varied as it is, and especially when the lyrics have so much more nuance. And while I get the choice for this sort of instrumental tone - if they were trying to make the same point I make about how that sort of creepy music feels off-kilter when placed against luxury rap, they made it work - but at the same time, I can't help but feel there were ways to make this satire more direct. And I can't believe I'm saying this - and long-time fans will know how insane this is coming out of my mouth - but if The Roots had grabbed a few trap beats from A$AP Ferg and had used them for 'When The People Cheer' or 'The Dark (Trinity)', they might have felt a little more cohesive and the satire might have felt a bit more direct. Don't get me wrong, I love the songs as they are, but for the overall cohesion of the album, they might have clicked a little better.

But look, the album is great, a satirical look at gangsta rap that might not have the visceral gutpunch of Pharoahe Monch's PTSD but does have the wordplay and experimentation and a stronger ending. I won't say it's my favourite Roots album - Undun and Phrenology are stone-cold classics in my books, but ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is one of The Roots' most experimental and engaging albums to date. For me, it's an 8/10 and a definite recommendation if you like hip-hop pushed to the limit with an odd twist, but still delivers on wordplay and content. It may have taken me a while to get to this record, but The Roots definitely make themselves worth the wait.

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