A lot has been made about the stark contrast between The Roots’ late-night gig as the freewheeling house band for Jimmy Fallon and their increasingly weighty, commercially oblivious records, but the group’s 11th studio album shows signs of the former finally influencing the latter. That’s because to experience …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is to experience a performance–be it the theatrical interludes, the character-driven roles, the overall symphonic flair, or the animated production cues that hint at what’s around the corner. The band has described the album as a “rap opera,” a characterization that implies a certain level of pretension. Turns out they’re really not that far off.
When Black Thought raps that he’s on his “existential grind” on “When The People Cheer,” he’s almost selling his character short; there’s enough philosophizing on big ideas (community, spirituality, ambition, morality) here to fill a Masters’ thesis. Black Thought makes a game of flipping iconic rap lines and mantras on their head, but the album connects more deeply on a level beyond satire. …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin works best when dealing with the kinds of feelings–rootlessness, hopelessness, and desperation–that help create characters who might just shoot their cousins: people who come from nothingness and belong nowhere; men with no future other than perhaps “a bullet in the head.” Or, as Black Thought puts it on “Never”: “Life’s a bitch, and then you live / until one day by death you’re found.” Hits a little too close to reality for comfort, doesn’t it?
If there’s a knock against the band’s relentless pursuit of this kind of “art record,” it’s that they may have sacrificed some basics along the way. Listeners who have decried Black Thought’s relative lack of verses over the last few Roots albums are hard done by again, a fact highlighted by his sharp form when he does take center stage. The hooks are consistently rough around the edges, as if the group simply went with several first-takes. And the album’s proto-rap center consists of precisely two songs: the “Yeah, Yeah”-sampling garage funk of “Black Rock” and the organ swinging “Understand,” which comes off like a splash of cold water to the face amidst the album’s occasionally plodding piano recital vibe.
…And Then You Shoot Your Cousin may well be the kind of album that gets better with age–the group’s previous record, the similarly concept-driven Undun, certainly revealed itself more with repeated listens–but that kind of extended investment requires a certain level of immediacy to help pull listeners back in time and again. …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin boasts such moments, but not in abundance.
Dating back to 2010’s How I Got Over, The Roots have been trimming down their albums in time and scope with each successive project, a tactic that might have peaked with Undun. That a couple of outliers on their latest album–“Understand” and Raheem Devaughn’s piano-sliding soul track “Tomorrow”–are among the highlights suggests that they may have boxed themselves in a little too tightly for their own good. …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin has them consciously crafting a particular kind of mood piece. They might have been better off pushing for a more sweeping, gamut-running epic.