Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Roots - ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin Review

It’s quite telling of the human psyche where the most consistent, longest running rap collective continue to remain outside of worthy discussion on any Hip-Hop forum in mass, or medium, doses. What else is there to discuss when a group known for their reliability in terms of quality release yet another highly-touted album, other than constant praise? Where rappers like Kanye West can insight numerous, never-ending rants within a community based on his love/hate music and followers, The Roots, pivotal rap group led by Questlove and Black Thought, have remained stagnant as mainstays in ‘GOAT’-discussions, despite constant talk being not nearly apparent. This is due to their dominance in their sound, elegance over their instrumentation, and lyrical depth in terms of imagery. Yet, regardless of how talented they are, boredom ensues with their contempt fans. Their newest release, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, has taken an unforeseen leap in terms of their new dynamic as a group, shifting focus away from their lead lyricist. It’s a large risk that only time will be able to tell if it pays off. Their 11th studio album is a mere 33 minutes, choosing to relish in brevity rather than excessive over-abundance. The impact, while in many ways disfigured and inconsistent, attempts to elicit the re-occurring problems of violence in Hip-Hop through various characters, only to stumble through its own lack of ambition.

The message itself becomes pretty clear relatively soon. Following a spoken word intro by none other than Nina Simone, Never begins, which posits Black Thought as a character built from the streets, dreaming in the night of his failed life and the fleeting time. These images, in collision with themes of religion, sins, regret, apathy, and depression, carry the weight of the entire album, with each track taking on a different role. Understand positions the characters in opposition to God, stating that even if he were to stick out his hand and help the ghetto slaves would just run away since it would be too much work. When The People Cheer focuses on two men, one a materialistically infused self-proclaimed “douchebag,” the other a “sex-addicted introvert,” and the apathy that surrounds their lives. Finally Black Rock throws our lead in the slums as a de facto crack dealer, making his living sinning just like those he sells to. While the messages throughout …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin are poignant and pivotal in realizing the strenuous, never-ending nature of impoverished ghetto civilians, the satirical viewpoint The Roots aim to achieve is mainly lost since all songs, excluding the closer, point the characters towards their sinful ways, never allowing for a solution to their problems, which, in all likelihood, is most truthful and the point of the record.

Putting aside the story at hand and how it’s formulated, the actual music of the album holds up rather strongly, granted that would be the case generally when only 8 songs are present. Unfortunately for many, The Roots’ noted departure from Black Thought, Questlove & company to a more defined group has left the former without many verses to showcase here, only 6 to be exact. Instead we’re treated with spots from R&B singers Party Crash, Mercedes Martinez, and Raheem DeVaughn, and rapping features from The Roots cohorts Dice Raw and Greg Porn. The features extenuated by these two maintain the concept while also engaging listeners with their creative flows, varied styles, and witty lyrics. There’s not a single bad verse on this album, with each reaching the level of quality Black Thought aspires to achieve from himself and his counterparts. The singing features however are more hit or miss. Martinez’s song, The Coming, is a dull listen, adding nothing to the album, repeating previous thoughts and ideals, while crooning over a bland piano melody. DeVaughn however closes the album in glorious fashion with Tomorrow, an upbeat track with glowing production as his singing of tomorrow’s wait and his positive attitude works as the stark contrast to the previous tracks. Where formerly the characters relished in the sin and wavered in the tragedy, DeVaughn’s character seeks for life’s pleasures, seizing the day at hand, working 9-5, and doing what he needs to do to survive.

While Tomorrow plays, and sounds, drastically different than anything else here, those others still produce stunning visions through their unique soundscapes and infectious instrumentations. The most noticeable inclusion of this is the opener, Never, as you can witness in their stunning live performance. Backing ensembles elicit haunting gospel orchestrations, hollowed out drum hits mash with harp flicks as Black Thought’s reverberated voice waves in and out of consciousness. All of this intended to symbolize the dream state the character is currently enveloped in. Elsewhere we witness varying departures. From Black Rock’s cartoony acoustic guitar set that mimics a Saturday morning cartoon gone ghetto, to The Dark (Trinity), an evocative track led by unwavering, direct continuations of drum and keyboard distortions met with harsh punches of bass, entirely reminiscent of a never-ending chain gang, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin’s production is another showcase of the group’s definitively dominant and varied sound quality. It’s something entirely their own, still remaining as the only instrumentation group in Hip-Hop large enough to get noticed by the masses. If any potential criticisms of the production are had it would more than likely deal with repetition in terms of loops and time measures, with piano melodies standing as a noticeable over-usage.

The idiom, ‘Quality over Quantity,’ basically means that too much of one thing boggles itself, and the message it assumes, down to nothing. Now, prior to …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, I had no thought that the opposite could be true. 11 tracks, 3 of them interludes, take only 33 minutes to finish what it started. The short manner, while certainly increasing the quality of each track, decreases the overall impact the record itself has on the listener. The grand statements of violence spreading in black communities through Hip-Hop become mute, off-hand talking points, since the record itself is so short-lived. While, for the most part, quality is rather top-notch here nothing remains long enough to drive home the intended message, and that’s where …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, I feel, stumbles over its own minimal approach. And, despite their experiments in song structure and album cohesion, the piece itself still fails to attain the quality heard on their previous LP, undun, where tracks seamlessly flowed together, sustaining consistency and intrigue amongst the listener. At the end of the day, with all disappointments aside, The Roots have still returned with a quality tape that reached for a distinct viewpoint unheld in Hip-Hop. Whether the intended goal was met or not remains to be seen in the long-term. For now however, we’re treated with a small dosage of quality tunes from the duo known for their consistency.

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