The Roots - ...and then you shoot your cousin

The Roots
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If you don’t have okayplayer.com bookmarked, or if your connection to The Roots doesn’t go back to Organix or at least their 1999 seminal record Things Fall Apart, you might not realize that the group is a central figure in the conscious hip hop movement or in rap in general. Hard core rap fans might be shocked at the very idea that there are people who think of The Roots as nothing other than Jimmy Fallon’s house band. The idea shouldn’t be so shocking considering what Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson and company have been up to for the last few years. The Roots are as likely to back up soul and rock singers as they are to make a rap album. Their residency on Fallon’s late night show that turned into the permanent gig by the time Fallon replaced Jay Leno earlier this year.

If you don’t have okayplayer.com bookmarked, or if your connection to The Roots doesn’t go back to Organix or at least their 1999 seminal record Things Fall Apart, you might not realize that the group is a central figure in the conscious hip hop movement or in rap in general. Hard core rap fans might be shocked at the very idea that there are people who think of The Roots as nothing other than Jimmy Fallon’s house band. The idea shouldn’t be so shocking considering what Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson and company have been up to for the last few years. The Roots are as likely to back up soul and rock singers as they are to make a rap album. Their residency on Fallon’s late night show that turned into the permanent gig by the time Fallon replaced Jay Leno earlier this year.

The Roots backed three vocalists on a trio of excellent soul and rock albums in the second decade of the 21st Century. Get Up, the 2010 record that featured the band backing up John Legend on a series of 1970s soul anthems. The highlight for me was the epic version of Bill Withers’ anti-war polemic “I Can’t Write Left Handed.” Next, the band backed Betty Wright on the soul revivalist classic Betty Wright The Movie and last year Elvis Costello on The Wise-Up Ghost (And Other Songs). Working with soul legends goes back to 2006 when The Roots collaborated with Al Green on Lay It Down.

The Roots did this while also releasing a series of highly regarded hip-hop albums such as Undun. Still, the rap almost seemed like an afterthought when members of the band slow jammed with President Obama and ?uestlove wrote a biography that featured the obligatory name drops. The red carpets and commercials prompted group members to wonder about the group’s direction, ?uestlove writes in his autobiography Mo’ Meta Blues. So, some might purchase …and then you shoot your cousin, The Roots’ latest album just to learn if The Roots have gone soft. Nope.

…and then you shoot your cousin is a good but very dark record. The album opens with Nina Simone’s “Theme From Middle of the Night.” This is not The Roots playing the song, but the actual Nina Simone version, and considering the tunes that follow, the song’s melancholy arrangement and mournful theme seem about right. “Only the lonely love/Only the sad of soul/Wake and begin their day in the middle of the night.”

Tracks such as “Black Rock” with Philadelphia rapper Dice Raw and especially “The Dark (Trinity)” prove that the group wasn’t so consumed with the red carpet that they ignored what was happening in the street. Because even as The Roots fortunes waxed, the fortunes of black men and boys in places such as Philadelphia waned. Perhaps more than any hip-hop album you will listen to, The Roots tell the stories of those brothers in explicit and uncomfortable details on …and then you shoot your cousin.

The hopelessness faced by many black men seeps from nearly every track. On “Black Rock,” the artist raps that hope and freedom will only be found in death. “The Dark (Trinity)” is the most compelling, revealing and in many ways most depressing track on the album. The track is one listeners probably won’t want to play in mixed company. The song’s protagonist is the epitome of young reckless hedonism and nihilism who is on a fast track toward destruction. “And I heard that death is calling/Money’s on the other line/The last episode is good times.”

“When the People Cheer” is a graphic journey through the mind of a man who spends his life objectifying women on the streets or in strip clubs. The lustful contempt in which the women are  viewed come through In this line “Living fast/tripping cash/One of them ho’s had/the audacity to ask/me how long this thing gon last/I said you wanna pay for class/get on that stage and shake that a**”

…and then you shoot your cousin is a record that will make listeners very uncomfortable. The language is raw. Some might say the profanity and use of the N-word is overdone. However, the themes addressed on the record match the harshness of those lyrics, and it will be hard to hear the profound sense of sadness that permeates nearly every song and come to the conclusion that The Roots are glamorizing the lifestyle. …and then you shoot your cousin stands as an explicit but passionate cautionary tale, and again demonstrates that the Roots are much, much more than a late night television show’s band. Recommended.

By Howard Dukes

 

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