The Roots are music’s version of The Wire: highly acclaimed, painfully under-appreciated, smart, and urban, with fans that insist that everyone should be listening, that it will change their perspective on the medium. The Roots have always been ones to turn a mirror on hip-hop culture. …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin makes hip-hop sit down and look itself in the eyes in a not-so-fun funhouse mirror. The result is a dark, dense album that covers the showcases The Roots’ excellent musicianship.
The Roots bring back several of their regular guests (Dice Raw, Greg Porn, Mercedes Martinez) and put together one of their most stylistically eclectic albums yet. It has always been difficult to pigeonhole The Roots into a particular genre, but this album barely stays within one genre from track-to-track. It switches between rap, neo-soul, R&B, and a little bit of rock. There’s also a strong amount of gospel music pervasive throughout much of the album. Throw in extended samples from sources as diverse as Nina Simone, Mary Lou Williams, and Michel Chion, tack some Raheem DeVaughn at the the end, and you can have a hard time classifying exactly what you’re hearing, which a long way of saying The Roots are doing their job.
It’s hard to avoid comparisons to undun, the Roots’ last non-Costello record. Both are short, dark looks at the harsh reality of ghetto culture that mainstream hip-hop is so quick to glamorize, told through the point-of-view of characters living in those situations. The primary difference is that undun follows one storyline, while …ATYSYC covers the lives of several characters.
Clocking in at just over a half hour, it’s one of the more concise albums in The Roots’ catalog, but requires multiple listens to fully comprehend. Even on the first listen, though, it’s hard to come away missing the point: much of this album is The Roots playing “Taps” for certain parts of the hip-hop genre.
Indeed, much of …ATYSYC is mourning the state of hip-hop, and the dour sound reflects that. There are multiple references to death–funerals, overdoses, abortions–strewn throughout it. These are characters who aren’t necessarily using their problems as a springboard for great things, because not everyone can do that. These are real problems for real people, running from their troubles the best they can until they can’t run anymore. It’s what happens when people clamor for violence and riches. As the chorus in “When The People Cheer” goes: “Nobody wins but nobody cares, they just want blood when the people cheer,” even if what they’re cheering for is mostly lies.
The Roots promoted the album as a satirical take on issues in the hip-hop community. While it’s not exactly humorous, it’s hard not to notice how the album continually turns hip-hop stereotypes on their heads. There are direct references to “99 Problems,” Get Rich or Die Tryin’, and even “Dick In A Box.” How many other rappers will reference Jay-Z and The Lonely Island in the same song?
This is very much an album that begs to be listened to in one sitting. While many tracks are strong enough to stand on their own, the production and organization of the album make it clear that you need to sit down and listen–not necessarily while you’re driving, but when you’re alone in your room in a reflective mood. There’s a lot to comprehend, and taking any part of it out of context seems like a disservice.
Black Thought continues his streak as Least Selfish MC, often dedicating over a third or even half of a track to guest verses. With all due respect to Tariq (who is as spectacular and insightful as ever), Greg Porn drops some of the best verses on the album. His verse on “Understand,” perhaps the strongest track on the album, is particularly powerful. I can’t help but wonder why we haven’t heard much of him outside of The Roots.
“I pray, I pray, all thoughts go to heaven
Or to a new hell with a Wi-Fi connection
So I can pay for my sins on PayPal
Or own a holy ghost, a greyhound”
This is admittedly not the Roots’ most exciting or even ambitious album, but it doesn’t have to be; they had a theme in mind and they stuck with it. Although I do miss their more free-form albums with a greater thematic variety, anything by The Roots merits a listen. Even when they aren’t at their strongest, The Roots are still head and shoulders above most everyone else and are always worth your time.