Over eleven tracks in a concise thirty-three minutes, the Roots' new album ...and then you shoot your cousin raises a series of challenges to its listeners: What is hip-hop, anyway? What does it sound like, and why? What is it supposed to accomplish?
The album's title is taken from a 1997 lyric by the Blastmaster KRS-One ("MCs more worried about their financial backin'/Steady packin' a gat as if something's gonna happen/But it doesn't, they wind up shootin' they cousin, they bugging"), an early harbinger of the unintended consequences of Thug Life styling. Produced by the Roots brain trust of Questlove, Tarik "Black Thought" Trotter, and Richard Nichols, along with contributions from a range of young talent (Mike Jerz, Trapzillas, The Wurxs, D.D. Jackson, Joseph Simmons, Damion Ward, Ray Angry), ...and then you shoot your cousin examines familiar figures in hip-hop storytelling—hustlers and outlaws—but told from a perspective that the genre has largely pushed aside.
In contrast to the endless parade of Bugattis and bling that have come to define current hip-hop, these songs are populated by dudes who are struggling, both financially and morally, with the ways of the street. "On my existential grind doing consequential dirt/Searching for physical pleasure if I don't go mental first," as Black Thought rhymes on "When the People Cheer," the album's first single, while on "The Dark (Trinity)," he laments "The law of gravity meets the law of averages/Ain't no sense in attempting to civilize savages." It recalls the view depicted in "Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live With Their Moms?," the groundbreaking study in the 2005 best-seller Freakonomics.
The music on the album raises the same sorts of questions. Does hip-hop only mean beats and rhymes? How much are samples required to be sliced and diced? Or are some things intrinsically "hip-hop," whether they fit the form's conventions or not? We don't even hear anyone rapping until three full minutes into the record—after a segment of Nina Simone's 1959 "Theme from The Middle of the Night" sets the tone of nocturnal solitude, and then Patty Crash sings the lengthy, melancholy intro to "Never."...and then you shoot your cousin is full of singing—from jazz legend Mary Lou Williams to soul new-schooler Raheem DeVaughn to Mercedes Martinez from the Jazzyfatnastees—and also strings, with the Metropolis Ensemble contributing to about half the album's tracks, plus a dramatic interlude of "Dies Irae," the fourth movement of "Requiem" by Michel Chion.
At a time when the very notion of a long-playing album is in doubt, the Roots have created a work that is intentionally short and meant to be absorbed in full. Rather than emphasizing singles, the impact of ...and then you shoot your cousin, the group's eleventh album, is more theatrical, accruing as it goes on, with situations and narrators that bounce off of each other to reveal a larger story. Things start with Black Though "spiraling down/Destined to Drown" on "Never," and pass through Dice Raw agonizing "How did I end up where I'm at, it's kinda hard to explain yo/I remember all I wanted was a gold chain and Kangol" on "The Dark (Trinity)." By the end, though, there is hope, as we look to "Tomorrow," and Raheem DeVaughn sings "We all fall short sometimes/It costs nothing to help sometimes."
Check out ?uestlove's 6-Part New York Magazine Essay Series “How Hip-Hop Failed Black America.”
Stream the full album on Spotify.
5/20 - NBC's Tonight Show
5/20 - CRWN with Elliott Wilson
5/31 - The Roots Picnic in Philly
6/8 - 92 Y
7/3-7/6 – Essence Music Festival performance
7/4-7/6 – Fourth of July Weekend performance