I have a minor complaint that encompasses the last couple of Roots albums, but the most recent in particular. I’m not sure that it’s entirely fair for me to say it, but say it I will: I’d love to get one more Roots record where the full band just plays, and where Black Thought serves as the band’s true voice rather than as a single player in the wider ensemble. That’s not how these records have been, certainly not the new one: I couldn’t say for sure but I am nearly positive that several band members aren’t actually heard on this new LP at all—I don’t hear a tuba, for one thing, and even Captain Kirk’s guitar and Frank Knuckles’ auxiliary percussion play a more muted role—while Black Thought is present on fewer tracks here than on any previous Roots album. This is a very different band than the one you see in concert or on Jimmy Fallon, or for that matter from what we heard on “The Seed” and “Thought @ Work.” I happen to like the three post-Fallon Roots joints more than their older material, so maybe I ought not complain at all, but I can’t help but be a little vexed that a group lauded for its live performance ability, and blessed with arguably the greatest living MC, downplays so many of its core strengths.
In other words, part of me wishes ?uestlove and Thought were interested in giving us different kinds of albums than the ones we are getting, which is, perhaps, an unfair bar against which to measure … And Then You Shoot Your Cousin. The two principle Roots have as much as said that they are only interested in doing passion projects from now on, which we might reasonably take to mean art projects. Certainly, Cousin steps further over the rap/art divide than any other Roots album—more even than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, if we’re being honest, though it also manages to feel less indulgent, which is no small feat. For godsake, this is a record that starts out with a minute-long Nina Simone sample—not chopped and distorted like Kanye’s Watch the Throne Nina Simone sample—and also contains a lengthy excerpt from an avant-garde composer; the first true Roots song on the album, “Never,” has a choral voice and a string section, and sounds like it could soundtrack a slow-motion action scene in a John Woo movie. This is a long way from Things Fall Apart, and for that matter is a long way from “How I Got Over” or the Wake Up! album recorded with John Legend.
Individual moments are less weird and less intellectual than all of this might sound: “When the People Cheer,” with its twinkling piano and Jay Z-referencing lyric, sounds almost like a single, and the album-closing “Tomorrow” is a tremendous R&B song, made no less affecting (though perhaps affecting in a different way) when it collapses in an avant-jazz heap, the bitter ironies below its surface oozing upward and out. “Understand” and “Black Rock” both have bangin’ beats and memorable vocal hooks. The thing is, though, the record doesn’t really sound like it was meant to be understood in terms of individual songs: Like the Romare Bearden piece that gives it its cover, this record is a collage, individual images meant to congeal into something whole and unified, even the samples and “interludes” feeling like parts of the larger mosaic. (People have asked me if they are missing anything when they stream the album on Beats or Spotify, which don’t have the three sample-based tracks, and I honestly believe that they are: Every note of this seems significant.)
The record is the shortest The Roots have yet made—just half an hour or so—and its succinctness is both admirable and perhaps a bit damning. I’ve said before that it almost feels like a Love Supreme scenario—any more than half an hour and the intensity of it would be unbearable—but I increasingly think the album might benefit from just a little more heft, a little more space for its themes to develop. When all is said and done it feels like a complete piece, a finished work, but perhaps not as deep or as heavy a work as undun—despite the fact that the two albums aren’t that far apart in terms of total run time. Another vocal track or two might have made this song cycle feel like it had that kind of gravitas—though give The Roots credit for following through on their conviction that the music itself says as much as words ever could, if not more.
Too-short or not, the album is a serious and significant exploration of capital and violence; its characters are the kinds of people you never hear from in hip-hop, except on Roots albums: They are desperate men who’ve played to win but drawn losing hands; they’ve hit rock bottom, and they know it. This is an album about bloodshed that stems from greed, aggression born of desperation; it’s set on the streets and the corners but has more than a couple of lyrics that suggest parallels with the boardroom.
It differs from undun in another key respect, despite the overlapping themes: That album told one man’s story from start to finish (or, rather, the other way around), and as such had time to develop and humanize him. The songs here all have different characters, which in effect reduces them to caricatures—but that’s the point: It works through scalpel-blade humor of the gallows variety, subverting and inverting rap clichés to reveal its themes.
It is a jet-black album, but its critics are wrong to call it humorless: It’s loaded with humor, simply devoid of joy. (Joy, by the way, is something that tends to be more readily available when you’ve got the warmth and camaraderie of musicians playing at the same time in the same room together—but there I go again.) It’s a brutally mirthless album that progresses with cold inevitability, and the more you play it the more you hear the hellish comedy within its lines. Then, as with a black comedy like The Wolf of Wall Street, you hit a point where you realize that all of the stories unfolding here are true, or at least accurate enough, and the heaviness of the whole thing really sinks in; here, it’s “Dark (The Trinity),” a funeral dirge and an unrelenting barrage of street-level nihilism. “Ain’t no use in attempting to civilize savages,” emerges as the record’s most insidious and disturbing line; it’s something we recognize as a lie—we must recognize it as such, or else sink into hopelessness—yet its resonance with current cultural debates is striking and terrifying; isn’t it essentially the argument of those who would dismiss any form of gun regulation?
Of course, The Roots are not nihilists, and lines like that one demand that we remind ourselves this is satire. There’s plenty you can fault the album for, but being timely and being unfunny are not among them. (Whether it actually makes you crack a smile is a different matter.) Neither can you accuse them of lacking in ambition: This is the farthest out-there they’ve yet gone, which is no small thing to say about a band that just took over prime late-night TV real estate. I can’t imagine the higher-ups at NBC loving this album title, but who cares? Certainly not The Roots: They’re as uncompromising as ever, and Shoot Your Cousin is weirdly exhilarating in its fractured beauty: It’s broken and bleak, but simply by spending time with these stories we affirm that all of this matters. Grace has the final word, even in a world as oppressive as this one.