Artist Romare Bearden’s “Pittsburgh Memory” (1964), a collage of the faces of two black men, graces the cover of the 11th studio album from The Roots, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, released a week ago. The artwork is captivating and initially confusing and perfectly matches the feel of the music inside. &TYSYC is a layered view of characters and clichés in hip-hop, interrupted and extended by samples from sources like Nina Simone, Mary Lou Williams, and French experimental composer Michel Chion. Playing like an auditory art gallery, the album feels distinctly experimental but has two important qualities: a fair dose of head-bobbing tracks and a captivating tone that makes it difficult to turn off. Now I hear you saying, “Wait, The Roots are still pumping out albums? I thought they were the house band for Jimmy Fallon’s version of The Tonight Show?” Indeed they are, hypothetical hip-hop head, but rather than trade one job for the other, The Roots have found a considerable amount of freedom in their stable gig that has allowed them to increase their output and their artistic exploration. The group has not slowed down on releasing new music, dropping 5 albums since first signing on as the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in March 2009, and in recent interviews the Question has divulged how the constant work of creating music for a daily tv show has resulted in a wealth of material for use on their albums. In this interview Quest mentions his recent goal of keeping the group’s albums short while still making an impact and a cohesive concept- there were three tracks that he pulled off of their 2011 release Undun “that were bangers but didn’t fit the storyline”.
The spectacle that is …And Then You shoot Your Cousin kicks off with two female singers, each jarring in their own way. First, as a way of intro we get a Nina Simone sample, a hip-hop cliche in its own right (see Talib’s “Get By”, “New Day” by Jay-Z and Kanye, “Oh Timbaland” by Timbaland, among others). Ms. Simone’s “In the Middle of the Night” paints a pleasant but not happy view of “the lonely”, those of us of a different sort, creatures of the night. The track serves as a set-up, painting the somberness that is forthcoming while also displaying the tongue-in-cheek/satirical angle that defines the work as a whole. Moving from there to the album’s first real track, “Never” has a more solemn and serious tone but Patty Crash’s odd and beautiful vocal alludes that there is something more complicated at play here. At first I thought the wiry, childlike singing was a product of voice modulation until I recalled the How I Got Over track “The Day” where Crash was first featured. There is something small in Crash’s tones, at the end of the word “memory” specifically and in the way she pushes forth her “forever”, that puts an image in my mind of a small girl on a dingy street in some dark post-apocalyptic world singing “all I see is never”. The girl is genuine but one wonders what in her past has sculpted her warped view of her surroundings. Quest’s two drum thumps at the beginning of the track are the musical equivalent of a throat-clear. “Ahem,” says the drummer, “may we please have your attention for the next half hour”, a request the listener is hard-pressed not to oblige.
After releasing the album on May 19, the Roots premiered “Never” on the Tonight Show the next day. Placed against a stark white background, the large band was joined by a 12-person chorus, each performer nearly motionless, as if frozen in some sort of heaven/purgatory. This is, of course, the central theme expressed in Black Thought’s verse, that of a man stuck in “damnation” and with no time left to change his situation. In interviews, both Black Thought and Questlove have mentioned the use of various characters on this album, versus the one main on Undun. But on &ATYSYC, the use of characters takes a slightly more impressionist feel than Redford Stevens. The characters here are purposely without storyline, nowhere that they’ve come from and no forthcoming actions to speak of. They are images in a bleak landscape that is the real protagonist of the album as a whole. That hopelessness and how our characters deal with it is the picture the album attempts to paint, each one resigned to his/her fate in an exaggerated way, seeing no role in their own evolution and/or redemption, addressing a similar attitude one might sau is prevalent in modern hip-hop. It’s from that attitude that the album takes its odd title, a reference to KRS-One’s lyric in “Step Into a World (Rapture’s Delight)”:
“Steady packin a gat, as if something’s gonna happen,
But it doesn’t, they wind up shootin’ they cousin, they buggin’”
“When the People Cheer” is the album’s lead single and probably its best track. On it, guest emcee Greg Porn shines with a quick portrait of the “killer couture, denim assassin”, a character with different sensibilities but no less empty than Black Thought’s womanizer, before we hear our third female singer in as many tracks, again painting the landscape with her vocals. This time it’s Modesty Lycan adding to the collage with colorful images of poverty like “waking up in the boxes with a box of Apple Jacks”. On this track we get our first mention of God, or rather the lack thereof, and the lip service paid to Him (“Everybody talks like God is all that”). Angels can be found in this bleak landscape, though it’s in the form of a stripper and drug smoke. We get a succinct summation of the attitudes in the first half of the album in
“Nobody wins but nobody cares,
They just want blood when the people cheer.”
After the lead single, we come to another break, with a sample in the same tone as the Simone introduction, the second chorus from Mary Lou Williams’ “The Devil”. Especially taken out of its original context, the four lines about the Devil “looking a lot like you and I” have an almost light-hearted/comical tone while touching on the album’s central theme of the evils within us being more powerful enemies that outside forces. In recent interviews Black Thought has labeled the album a “satire” and “The Devil” is perhaps the clearest example of that, presenting a serious concept but alluding to the fact that the dark, victim-without-hope persona often put forth in modern hip-hop can be more cliché than genuine.
We dip back into further characters with “Black Rock” as Dice Raw delivers us some potent visuals – “what’s for breakfast… cheeseburger and a 40 oz” is one of the record’s more lasting images. Stuck in a trap, just like everyone else on the record, Dice’s character is absent any path of progression from his doom and, though seeming unsatisfied, is resigned to this reality. Black Thought chimes back in with 8 bars, ending on a biblical reference to Matthew 11:7/Luke 7:24 and perhaps one of the more interesting lines on the album
“Guilty of sin, depending on the reeds shaking in the wind
Just a question never answered out here waiting on its end”
The reeds in the wind from the biblical verse refer to religious teachers who must bend to the desires of those who elect and pay them, as opposed to John the Baptist (about whom he was speaking) who is teaching truth in the wilderness. In Black Thought’s verse, the reeds are simply any influences on his character, a human question without direction beyond his dead-dropping dealing ways.
Led by the organ pipes, on “Understand” we return in a more direct manner to the subject matter of God and our fickle human interactions with the deity. Black Thought follows his “Black Rock” character to his worldly end, a man who had “dreamed a little dream of me” but finds no surprise in his pine box conclusion. Meanwhile Greg Porn, with a flow that sounds a lot like Kendrick Lamar, is still a praying man, despite a real lack of hope in his surroundings. The listener again gets hints of the album’s inherent satire in the contrast between the bleak themes addressed and the up-beat tone (for lack of a better word) of songs like “Black Rock” and “Understand”, energetically bobbing along despite the crushing lack of hope. Listeners are then shaken out of their relative comfort by another sample transition, this time from French experimental producer Michel Chion’s “Requiem”. “Dies Irae” provides a jarring bridge into the last third of the album. We “awaken” from the Chion-sampled transition into a light piano-driven track in “The Coming”. Calm and somewhat serene despite “I hear somebody screaming…”, the chorus becomes much tenser and unsettling in its final iteration at the end of the song. There is a feeling of resolution, like sun breaking after a rain but that is short-lived. Our protagonist on this song is jaded by the surrounding violence, unsurprised by the sound of someone screaming.
While the album’s brevity is one of its positive qualities, it’s in this last section that it feels rushed, perhaps leaving our tale not fully told. The final four tracks are indeed a fitting closing note to the album; it simply seems that there is a section missing before we get to this final concluding period. A weak point on the album, “The Dark (Trinity)” attempts to serve as a contrast between three different hip-hop personality types, bringing back the three emcees we’ve seen throughout the work. Sadly, the song simply drags at a point in the album when another punch of energy is needed. The album hits its final sullen note with “The Unraveling”, a track that adequately expresses a “journey nearly over” feel. The tale is still one of a “man with no future”, we’ve grown no more hopeful, but somehow the feeling of resignation is explained and is more refined. Metaphorically (and perhaps literally, I suppose) our character is at the end of his life, awaiting redemption in its final and truest form, death.
In a reversal of course and tone, “Tomorrow” makes a perfect final track and may be the most honest song on the album. A simple, jazzy, boppy number, the song, for the first time on the album, separates the dangers and influences that comprise the bleak backdrop from our own actions and beliefs. It is, in fact, true that “everybody wants tomorrow right now”, we are all looking for something greater than the life that seems to trap and define us, but being yourself is free and so is helping someone else. Even the music on this track expresses an honesty not seen on the rest of the work – no dissonant contrast between horns and piano, no satirical vocals. Perhaps it’s a type of afterlife, a relief from mortal complications but on “Tomorrow” what we see is what we get, ending the album with a note of hope.
Now eleven years in, the Roots continue to push the creative edge of hip-hop. Despite the presence of venerable hits in “Never” and “When the People Cheer”, &TYSYC is not an album for everyone and many will take issue with the sound experimentation and the distinctly low presence of emceeing (out of 11 tracks, 5 contain no rapping at all). But as far as the boys from Philly are concerned that is exactly the point, to alter and evolve our views of what hip-hop is “supposed” to be, providing hope that the genre as a whole hasn’t backed itself into a corner comprised of clichés, without any way of helping ourselves out.