The following is not intended as anything more or less than a quick set of first impressions– well, impressions of after my fourth listen, but it’s an odd and dense record– posted to Facebook this morning. I’m still unravelling the different threads of the record, but am concerned that it’s being too quickly dismissed as somber, bleak, or even slight, rather than engaged for the deeply mysterious and compelling work that I believe it to be.
A funny thing happened to The Roots on their way to semi-retirement. After getting off the road and settling into a cushy gig as Jimmy Fallon’s house band, they’ve suddenly become exponentially more prolific than they ever were before– no small thing for a working band like The Roots. By ?uestlove’s own reckoning they now write hundreds of new songs every week; have collaborated on-stage with everyone from Springsteen to Randy Newman, and on-record with Betty Wright, Booker T. Jones, and Elvis Costello; and yes: Have now released three proper, post-Fallon Roots joints that have effectively redefined who The Roots are as a recording unit (not least because none of these albums actually seem to feature the full Roots lineup, making it seem as though the Roots brand is really just a vehicle for ?uestlove’s flights of fancy).
Ironically, regularly displaying their sense of humor on ‘Fallon’ seems to be making The Roots more gravely serious on record; their increasingly prolific nature, meanwhile, has been tempered somewhat by much shorter albums– all of them with strong conceptual thrusts, tackling middle age, the corrosive effects of capitalism, and the fractured nature of hip-hop as a culture.
New album …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is the shortest one yet, at barely over half an hour; it’s also the bleakest, a brutal and biting satire of a culture in love with violence and completely given over to the basest drives of capitalism. ?uestlove has suggested that the record is intended as a comment on hip-hop culture– and the deeply referential lyrics, which pick up on thoughts by everyone from KRS-One to Jay Z, certainly bear this out– but to approach this record as a tourist would be to do it and yourself a disservice: We’d be fools to think this same seed of self-preserving bloodlust isn’t carried somewhere in each one of our bruised and battered human hearts—watered not by hate but by fear.
This is also their most their weirdest album—they’ve outpaced Kanye in the art-rap department, stripping away most recognizable elements of funk and instead going back to jazz and 40s and 50s pop and looking ahead into avant classical music, weaving instrumentals, snippets, and full-fledged Roots songs into an intentionally disjointed, postmodern hip-hop operetta. (Hop-hiperetta?)
It’s some weird shit, is what I’m trying to say, with weighty concerns: Violence, misogyny, and greed are offered up as the dehumanizing fruit of hip-hop culture—indeed, of an American culture now marked more by dreams deferred than by dreams brought to realization. (All of this makes the whistled, sunshiney closer, “Tomorrow,” seem like a coda so bitterly ironic that even their new pal Randy Newman might think it too dark.)
You could say the album is too brief, but—like A Love Supreme—its sheer intensity might make anything more than 30 minutes all but unbearable. You could also say they’ve become far too serious, and maybe you’re on to something—but right now it seems as though this is the message they’ve been given, the voice with which to deliver it. Best to stand back and let these dear hip-hop journeymen testify—because as brutal as this all can be, there’s something undeniably exhilarating about hearing a veteran band like this go so far out—while looking so far in—and conjuring a record as brave and uncompromising as this one.