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The Roots Save Their Sour Notes for the Quizzically Bleak ‘…And Then You Shoot Your Cousin’

SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: May 20, 2014
Label: Island Def Jam

In this post-Internet age of cross-platform synergy as condo down-payment survival, the Roots have flourished. There is the band on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, an incredible sight for anyone who remembers how the Fugees swacked them back in 1995. There is the annual Roots picnic; the Starbucks-friendly Wise Up Ghost with Elvis Costello; the festival appearances with guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas shredding up “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” And yes, there is ?uestlove, the genial Paul Shaffer to Jimmy Fallon’s twee Letterman, and one of the new millennium’s great bon vivants, tweeting and posting selfies on Instagram about his celebrity friends (lots of Prince shout-outs) and his epicurean adventures with impressive gregariousness. His best-selling book, Mo Meta Blues, displays the same kind of intellectual curiosity as he weaves anecdotes about meeting Kiss and making viral videos with Dirty Projectors into an entertaining autobiographical tale. If only he could extend that same generosity and love of pop in all its cheesy shamelessness and gewgaw wonder to his band’s recordings and, more importantly, to the hip-hop culture that he claims fealty to, instead of frequently taking it out to the woodshed, most recently via his damningly titled “How Hip-Hop Failed Black America” lectures for Vulture.

But perhaps by now we should be used to the Roots dazzling us with their multimedia adventures, then retreating to the studio to harangue us about cultural oblivion. They’ve mined this personality crisis for nearly their entire career, ever since they answered De La Soul’s “Stakes Is High” alarm with Illadelph Halflife, with its intimations of a society veering toward implosion. Their aesthetic focus has made for brilliant set pieces that need little recap here: the Philly neo-soul blues of Things Fall Apart and the voracious yet conflicted funk and art rock of Phrenology are noted chapters in the modern rap canon. Their latest concept opera, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, is comprised of a series of miniatures, men struggling in the concrete cages of Any Ghetto or the heavily mortgaged, lower-middle class dystopia of Any Exurb. No one actually gets shot on ATYSC. Instead, the title alludes to the kind of intra-family tragedies that occur when men overstretched by harassing cops, bad credit, and cheeseburger-and-beer diets reach their breaking point.

Black Thought, Greg Porn and Dice Raw, aka Money Making Jam Boys, give voice to these desperate figures. Black Thought evokes young schoolchildren unlucky enough for charter school segregation as he raps on “Never,” “Waiting on Superman losing all patience.” Greg Porn’s protagonist on “When the People Cheer” is “Living on the run like somebody trying to burn fat.” Dice Raw recites over the churchy organs of “Understand,” “People ask for god ’til the day he comes/ See god face, turn around and run/ God sees the face of a man shakes his head/ Then says, man I never understand.” These are broken relatives of Redford Stevens, the young thug in the death throes of 2011’s Undun.

Pretty garlands decorate this semi-bitter suite largely co-produced by ?uestlove, Black Thought and manager/provocateur Richard Nichols. A recording of Nina Simone’s “Theme from the Middle of the Night” opens the 40-minute album. Mary Lou Williams’ mordant warnings of how “The devil looks like you and I” leads to a crackling loop of Blackrock’s funk obscurity “Yeah, Yeah.” Composer Michel Chion closes the first section with a segment from Mozart’s “Dies Irae.” The second section leads to a familiar conclusion for those immersed in the Roots’ work. “Everybody wants tomorrow right now,” sings Raheem DeVaughn on “Tomorrow,” just as Ray Angry’s sharp keyboard arpeggio flowers into a lush waft of soulful melancholy. The song, and the album, closes elliptically with Monk-like stabs and a vibrato that could suggest the end of a life, or a story whose course has not yet been charted.

Songs sag and soar at once. “Never” leans too heavily on Patty Crash’s girlishly wide-eyed vocal. Black Thought slows his cadence down to meet the funereal percussion of “The Dark (Trinity),” and the resulting effect is both plodding and magnetic. But none of that really matters. ATYSC‘s central dilemma is its vision of American depravation, and how we’ve substituted religious fervor for material and physical lusts. Unlike 2010’s How I Got Over, where the Roots attempted (and largely succeeded) to find solutions for their mid-life crises, this one is all fire-and-brimstone critique. If only we could hear the exuberantly joyful musicality they perform on a nightly basis, whether it’s on The Tonight Show or at an amphitheater near you.

Hip-hop and, by extension, black America ails plenty, but there is much life in it yet, and we don’t have to look far for examples beyond the Roots themselves. The Philly ensemble’s improbable journey from early ’90s street-busking acid-jazz indie band to network television stars is proof of how hip-hop snakes circuitously into strange and wonderful forms. So why does the band’s baroque chamber-rap on …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin tender better questions than answers? “Street dreams/ Close your eyes,” sings Patty Crash on “Never.” Instead of closing their eyes, the Roots should open them.