Album Review: “…And Then You Shoot Your Cousin” by The Roots

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By: Pete Andrew

For Christmas 1998, my eldest sister purchased for me the Barenaked Ladies Stunt. It wasn’t my first album – that honor somehow belongs to Aqua’s Aquarium – but it sticks in my mind for one reason: though my sister bought me the whole album, rather than a single, I sat in my room for what seemed like weeks and listened to one song, “One Week, on repeat. By that, I don’t mean that I listened to it a few times before moving on to the rest of the album, popped out the CD in favor of another band’s album, went outside like a normal child, or even went to the bathroom. I stayed in that room and listened to “One Week” ad nauseam. It didn’t matter that I had to go to the bathroom – there were dresser drawers for that. It didn’t matter that I got hungry – I pulled up floorboards and chewed up those bad boys without hesitation. It didn’t matter that my other sister politely mentioned (with a raised voice and thinly veiled threats, most likely) that, hey, Pete, since the Barenaked Ladies put forth the effort to produce a full album, and my sister was nice enough to purchase it for me, maybe I should listen to the whole fucking thing before I die a mysterious death.

Alas, it seems evident that I am a member of the one of the first generations to largely eschew listening to albums in their entirety, choosing instead to export only my favorite songs to blank CDs or—now that I’m no longer twelve years old—iTunes playlists. I’m torn on this fact; on one hand, if an album doesn’t grab me from start to finish, why bother listening to the whole thing when I can get all I want out of it with four tracks? Conversely, many albums need the audience to consume them as a singular product in order for listeners to realize fully the project’s value. The album’s point becomes clearer when the listener commits to the album from onset to terminus. One’s understanding and appreciation for an album grows with numerous, full run-throughs.

To the surprise of absolutely nobody who has listened to The Roots, their newest effort, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, is one of those albums. There is no “One Week” or “Barbie Girl” (thank the gods), but at a succinct runtime of 33:22, one has no trouble getting from the opening notes (courtesy of the legendary Nina Simone) to the album’s concluding track, “Tomorrow,” which operates as, well, a “soul solo of sorts” for Newark’s own Raheem DeVaughn.

Holding true to the notion that &TYSYC is more a singular piece than it is a number of individual songs pieced together, I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to approach this review track-by-track, as I did with my Bonus Cut reviews of Kanye’s possibly esoteric, possibly bombastic Yeezus and Schoolboy Q’s hella gangsta Oxymoron. Hell, besides not doing the album justice, it very well may result in utter nonsense, thousands-of-words strong, on my part. I’d rather avoid that, if it’s all the same to you.

(Note: I’ll still refer to tracks for the sake of reference. I only mean that I won’t be sticking to the “Song #1 – yada yada yada, Song #2 – et cetera, et cetera format.)

As mentioned, &TYSYC begins with Nina Simone somberly placing the listener “in the middle of the night,” where loneliness reigns in partnership with the darkness. A true intro in the sense that “Theme from the Middle of the Night” features thirteen lines of Simone and lacks the presence of any member of the Roots, it aptly puts the listener in a particular mood via lines such as, “To grasp your absent grace/ In desperate embrace.” Something’s crucial to life and happiness is missing; after listening a few times, I’m inclined to think that the “absent grace” that Simone tries to “desperate[ly] embrace” is God, but that’s simply one man’s opinion.

As “Theme from the Middle of the Night” concludes, we progress seamlessly into “Never.” Two reverberating snare shots act as a percussive death knell, then fall silent, making way for an equally funereal-sounding choir. Patty Crash, about whom I know nothing other than that she has an amusing Twitter account and possesses a voice that succeeds Nina Simone’s remarkably well, lends her eerie, alternatively raspy and clear voice to the chorus. The hook itself features interesting wordplay: The “street dreams” mentioned have run their course – have likely, in fact, fallen short and ended poorly – “The moment… feels like forever,” and yet, just seconds later, “time flies down and says ‘never.’” The juxtaposition of immortality/eternity and simple nonexistence speaks directly to the life at the bottom of society. Aspirations and, with a little bit of luck, successes seem as though they’ll never end – that is, until they do, and the modern day Icarus tumbles back down to reality, right back where he began.

Black Thought, in his first verse of &TYSYC, expounds on this thought, and even kicks it up a notch.

I was born faceless in an oasis
Folks disappear here and leave no traces
No family ties, nigga, no laces
Less than a full deck, nigga, no aces

First delving into established truths of ghetto living, the narrator senses his disadvantage at every turn. To those above him, he has no individualistic identity. His family structure is weak or nonexistent, he sees death all around him. In response, he takes on a destructive lifestyle (“Waiting on Superman, losing all patience/ Getting wasted on an everyday basis”).

At this point, Thought strikes on pure genius:

I’m stuck here, can’t take vacation
So fuck it, this shit is damnation
This is reality, mayne

And later:

Life is a bitch and then you live
Until one day by death you’re found
 …
 Spiraling down, destined to drown
 Forever is just a collection of nows

He lives in a personal hell, filled with horrors and hopelessness he feels belong in Satan’s domain. But this is life, and as such death can only improve his circumstances. Moreover, his descent is a foregone conclusion; even if he makes it out, he’s bound to return to his rock-and-hard-place existence.

And to reiterate what Crash introduced in the chorus, eternity is nothing more than a collection of however many moments he’s afforded. Or, perhaps more appropriately, as many as he’s forced to endure on this earth.

Crash returns in the outro to offer up one more scene of pure dejection (“I woke up with a tear drop/ All I know is all I know/ It’s all I know), one that reminds me of a portion of Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred”:

Maybe [a dream deferred] just sags
like a heavy load.

At this point, it feels as though &TYSYC arrives at its nadir. Though we’re only 5:21 into the album, that is 16.21% of the way through the entire thing (yes, I did the math, dammit), and nary has a positive word, thought, or deed been mentioned. We’re still firmly in the darkness. Fortunately, “When the People Cheer,” though it certainly isn’t full of a dream realized, at least goes so far as to pick up the pace, and the speakers have stumbled upon at least some degree of success in life, even though the tone of the album thus far would lead one to believe this will be a temporary reality. Still, Black Thought and frequent Roots collaborator Greg Porn combine their talents to deliver one of the most lyrically sound tracks I’ve come across in a while.

Porn kicks it off in the first four bars after the instrumental introduction:

Lights, camera, chemical reaction
Attracted to a body of lies with fat asses
Thank the Most High for the high of high fashion
My art of war is killer couture, denim assassin

Truly, I knew this was a winner the moment I heard that for the first time. Porn, though you should never Google him from a work computer, shines throughout this project. Bonus Cut’s Gus (you’ve probably heard of him) and I chatted briefly about &TYSYC and concurred that Porn doesn’t have a weak moment. True to form, his turn on “When the People Cheer” is one helluva strong start. Again internal conflict comes to the surface, as the speaker knows the lifestyle he’s embracing is nothing more than “a body of lies with fat asses,” he thanks God that he finds himself in the thick of those asses[1], which presumably fit ever-so-perfectly in some tight, high fashion jeans.

As he launches into the first verse, Porn questions that which is making his name, wondering if he’s nothing more than a “douchebag” or “just another doo-rag” and accepting the fact that “money is the language” the world speaks. He does what he must and keeps on a persistent grind (“I do ‘em dirty/ Sleep and get a dirt nap”), but he’s aware that his past may catch up with him at any moment. To combat this knowledge, he adopts a “DGAF” attitude:

Living on the run like somebody tryna burn fat
I don’t give a fuck, now maybe that’s abstinence
Or the arrogance of someone who ain’t got shit
That think money over bitches is a stock tip

First, holy shit what a lyrical sequence. To open with the four bars mentioned above, then following that up with these eight? Madness. In my opinion, the only conclusion one can draw from hearing that verse for the first time is that Greg Porn is an emcee on the rise.

Not to be outdone on his own joint, Black Thought provides the anchoring verse, furthering the album’s rhetoric while choosing to focus more on personality flaws and sinful living. And I swear, wittiness oozes out of this man’s pores.

I’m down to $95, that’s the extent of my riches
Out of 99 problems, 98 of them is bitches
Out here hollerin’ – what’s ironic is
I’ve been honestly tryna do what’s right

Honestly, so much has been said about Black Thought’s talent as an emcee, it’s tempting to quote this entire verse, label “Exhibit 93,523,” and move on…

Fine, one more “excerpt,” which, yeah, is about one-third of the verse. It’s the only way to get me to stop gushing:

Molly poppin’, trolley hopin’
Know somebody prolly watchin’
That ain’t stopping me from coppin’ a feel
Karate choppin’ in this after-hours spot
Watchin’ mommy body rockin’
First I feed her vodka shots
Then she eat my Johnnie Cochran

The manner in which he lays down superb verse after superb verse with what comes across as such ease… it’s just unfair. I wish I could do anything half that well.

Even with all of the worldly pleasure apparent in “When the People Cheer,” the chorus tempers the mood. Through the voice of one Modesty Lycan, of whom I know as little as I do of Patty Crash and who does not have a very interesting Twitter page, presence of God is questioned, with the speaker sensing that he has abandoned the world. In lieu of any divine presence, we turn to another angel, one we can find “floating on a cloud that [we] blow in the air.” Self-medication is certainly a trope in hip-hop and music in general, but once again the Roots take what is established and present it to their audience in a dark-but-serene, hauntingly beautiful manner.

On the other end of “When the People Cheer” comes “The Devil,” which stands as a largely monophonic response to the narrator’s questioning of God. In short – which is simple to say, since “The Devil” is four lines – it’s a warning: “The Devil never rest—come day, come dusk, come dawn.”

“Black Rock,” featuring another Roots joint regular in Dice Raw, is perhaps the only portion of &TYSYC that leaves me with mixed feelings. It’s a brief scene: the notion of the dead-end life is once again present, but this time the thought of violence feels like a certainty, an end that’s becoming much more apparent (“At the end of this tunnel, it’s red and blue lies”). Black Thought chips in with his own brand of anger;

I damn with animal anguish
So love no bitch, die richer than language
Guilty of sin depending on the reeds shaking in the wind

Here Black Thought is savage, with animalistic anger, has an absence of love, a mind solely intent on personal gain, constant sin, and no thought of reform. “Black Rock” is the certainly brashest, most unapologetic moment of &TYSYC. My take on it varies with each listen. At first, I found it disruptive. The next time around, I found it a fine complement to “The Devil” – the warning has been answered with a wrathful climax.

I suppose it’s an ugly exclamation point, an instance of the Devil rearing his ugly head. And shit, in the end, maybe you’re not supposed to like it. Maybe it’s a necessary piece to the puzzle – but when the completed puzzle is predominantly ugly, I’d imagine the Devil would show his face at some point.

At this point, it occurs to me that &TYSYC is a bit like the tracks underneath Gringotts Bank.[2] If you’re on the tracks, you’re always underground, and thus more or less in the darkness. That said, at some points you’re closer to the surface – to hope, to a breath of fresh air – while at other times you’re waaaay the hell down there, locked in Bellatrix Lestrange’s vault with jewels and trinkets that are somehow multiplying, threatening to bury you in gold, with a goddamned tortured, pissed off dragon somewhere in the vicinity. If “Black Rock” is the latter, “Understand,” featuring Dice Raw and Greg Porn is the former.

In the hook, Dice shows the paradox of humankind’s relationship with God. We ask for Him (or Her), but constantly fail in our efforts to live in His image. In return, He looks at us and shakes His head in disappointment. He’s a loving God, He’s given us infinite chances, and yet we fall short time and again. It’s the eternal disparity, one that will end only in the Rapture (if you believe in that), which will surely manifest itself in bloodthirsty koalas overpowering the world’s population and crucifying us on bamboo crosses.

Pandas are the ones with the bamboo? Shut up.

Anyway, in Black Thought’s opening verse, he has passed away. In contrast to “Black Rock,” Thought doesn’t get overly graphic, but he talks of “[leading] the devil in a dance, an electric slide across the line [he] drew up in the sand.” Needless to say, he finally lost. His dream of getting away from his unfortunate beginnings never came to fruition, and now his chance has passed. In death, he remains faceless, unremarkable to the world.

In the second and final verse, Greg Porn still lives, and he’s basking in his blasphemy. He’s dressed in his Sunday’s best, aaaaand using his Bible to prepare some weed. He realizes how lucky he is, having come further than any of his peers, buuuuuut “blows it on a nun to resurrect my erection” (a line that results in a wry smile on my face every single time). He’s at the top, but unlike Thought he’s still at the top of world, still feeling secure as he stands on his cloud.

One might predict what comes next (Michael Chion’s “Dies Irae”). While there are no words, “Dies Irae” is Latin for “Day of Wrath,” so take that for what you will. The sounds are chaotic and, just for the fuck of it, cacophonous, and though one can’t be entirely sure of its meaning, its successor may help clear things up.

“The Coming” operates in the same vein of “Theme from the Middle of the Night” and “Devil.” It’s a transitional track with no rapping whatsoever, but it does seem to clue the listener in to the result of Porn’s character in “Understand”:

I hear somebody screaming
Again bracing for the fall
Close my eyes but never wonder
I have seen it all

Just as Black Thought states on more than one occasion, there’s nothing original about this fall from success. Even though Porn’s verse in “Understand” depicts an individual who has never experienced a fall, there’s nothing new under the sun, and this has happened a million times before, hence the inclusion of “again” in the second line.

There’s no shock, there’s no true sense of grief – how can one truly mourn what has been mourned innumerable times? After all, “this is reality, mayne.”

On the album’s last full-on Roots track, Dice Raw and Greg Porn join Black Thought to become The Dark Trinity. Black, in handling the first verse, personifies Violence. In pure gangster fashion, he remains in check when people show him respect and give him what’s his, but he’s quick to spill blood the moment someone comes up short (“If you don’t pay like you weigh, alright, okay, that’s fine with me/ I’ma just spray my heat and say my piece and lay you down to sleep”). He’s intent on showing that he’s the hardest out (“I’m a nigga, other niggas pale in comparison”) and that there’s no reason or hope for change in his life (“No idea how much time’s left, fuck trying to cherish it”).

Greg Porn takes the mic next to represent Sin (“Life is sex, stress, and drama and I’m hooked on all three/ I’d rather O.D. than be the next O.G./ You fallin’ for a whore that already chose me”). All of his pleasures and gains are material, and he cares not for how he comes across them (“On Eazy-E and PCP/ Ass, cash, and EBT”). In his last line, Porn states that “the last episode of Good Times is my life.” Now, I had to look this up since Good Times is bit before my time, but it’s clearly a very tongue-in-cheek statement. Good Times ends with all of the primary characters receiving the best possible outcome; one guy gets a contract with the Chicago Bears, another moves into a plush part of town, one woman gets pregnant, another gets her dream job and moves out of the projects, and so on.[3] Comparing that to Porn’s verse, things are a little bit different. He gets fucked up, he makes money, he gets ass. While that’s perhaps some people’s idea of a happy ending, it certainly conflicts with the (abject absurdity that is the) Good Times finale.

As Dice brings the track home, he becomes the Worship of Money and, in extension, all the wrong that springs from such misplaced adulation. Additionally, he tacks on the presence of fear, especially in terms of the prospect of dying young:

It’s a phrase they say in the streets when the young players meet:
Get rich or die trying
But the funny thing about that phrase to me
Is that these little niggas be lying
‘Cause don’t nobody want to die

Later on in the verse, he reflects back to his days of youth.[4]

How did I end up where I’m at?
It’s kinda hard to explain, yo
I remember all I wanted was a gold chain and a Kangol
I remember all I wanted was a gold chain and some Jordans, too

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t have a happy ending. Now that he’s reached some sort of pinnacle, he’s still unhappy. He looks back at these simple dreams – the Jordans, the Kangol – and wishes he could give it all back (“Crossed that bitch, then I got that bitch/ Now all I want from her is an abortion/ My mind filled with distortion/ My eyelids say caution”). In the end, it all goes back to money, his soul’s downfall.

Yeah, I sold crack to get my soul back
They say it’s gonna cost a fortune
And I wonder if Allah take debit
‘Cause a nigga got real bad credit
 If not, I ain’t got a whole lot
 So a nigga like me just can forget it

Ah, the irony! He placed the integrity of his soul in the hands of the almighty dollar bill, and now he can’t get it back, and because of the things he’s done to get money, his soul is in more trouble than he can overcome. The burden seems insurmountable, so he loses hope, figuring he won’t be able to change enough to make it matter in the end, thus beginning the vicious cycle found all throughout &TYSYC.

Following “The Dark (Trinity),” is “The Unraveling,” a piano-backed single-verse track featuring the aforementioned Raheem DeVaughn. The hook concisely reiterates the notion of said vicious cycle for those in society who have it worst:

  I die here again
 To be reborn again
 And I’m somebody new today
 Free of my sins today
 Feels like they’re washed away
 A man with no future, a man with no future

In a short verse, Black calmly warns those caught in the trap, telling them to give up the game of violence, immorality, and the chase for material gains, poignantly alerting these individuals, “Here comes the hounds – lay your burdens down in advance.” It’ll only get ugly if you don’t, and though the odds may be against you, “redemption in the slow grind of chance” is the higher road, one worth taking even if progress is slower.

Of the 35 minutes and 22 seconds of &TYSYC, there’s a clear argument that there’s little to no true happiness or well-founded hope in the first 30 minutes and 16 seconds. But then comes “Tomorrow,” the final movement of the album. In it, there’s a dose of reality, but its inclusion isn’t focused on hardship, but rather facts of life that everyone must face.

  Send a message to God in heaven
  I’m thankful to be alive
 ‘Cause you sleep from 11 to 7
 And work hard from 9 to 5
 Cause can’t nobody last forever
 And everybody has to die
 And everybody needs protection
 I pray it don’t pass me by

Not to get preachy, but the realization that we all need help, that we need God to protect us, is what tears this album out of the doldrums and mayhem that permeated the rest of the it. For the first time there’s real hope, personal accountability (A good night’s sleep! A steady job!), and thought of honest-to-goodness happiness (“It ain’t how you measure your wealth/ No, I say it’s free to be yourself”). Mortality is unavoidable, but – for obvious reasons – it’s better to reach the end of your rope at an old age, in a warm bed, surrounded by those who love you.

In the end, &TYSYC makes the clear statement that life’s not all bad, you just have to go about it the right way. It may appear tough, or even downright impossible in the darkest of times, but look to Tomorrow and maintain faith. It’s not all darkness.

***

As you may have come to realize in the preceding 3,900 words, I’m a tremendous fan of …And then You Shoot Your Cousin. That said, for those of you who are frustrated by &TYSYC, I’d wager you have legitimate reasons. As soon as I heard that the Roots had another album coming however many months ago, I envisioned something rap-heavy, with a very healthy dose of Black Thought, a man I place on the Mount Rushmore of emcees. With &TYSYC coming on the heels of undun, the group’s first concept album, I thought Roots fans were in store for something slightly more traditional in the hip-hop sense.

Obviously, it didn’t happen like that, and instead we get this compact, troubled album. It’s certainly not easily accessible. If you want to have any chance of enjoying it (apart from a few songs, such as “When the People Cheer” or “Understand,” for example), it’s going to take commitment on your part. That’s not for everybody I guess, but I pity those of you who can’t approach any piece of art – hip-hop or otherwise.

If I may – and I can, because I am – I’d like to take The Roots’ newest album and extrapolate it in an effort to predict what the future may hold for them as a group. Though lineups have varied throughout the years (it’s still weird to think that you can find Scott Storch manning the keyboard in really old videos), the core of The Roots have been going strong – and hard for two decades. Two decades! For any group, but especially for one that never achieved massive pop success, that’s almost inconceivable.

But I think the Roots of old are done. They’ll stick together, maybe. Why not? But look at the last few projects: undun, &TYSYC, Wake Up! with John Legend, Wise Up Ghost with Elvis Costello. Clearly, they’re going about things a different way now, but doesn’t that make sense? These musical masterminds aren’t twenty-year-olds anymore. Things change. And frankly, after the fashion and speed with I went from “I don’t know how I feel about &YTYSC,” to, “I’m going to write over 4,000 words on &TYSYC because I love it so damned much,” I’m perfectly okay with that. I trust in the Roots, and have no doubt that, whatever they make, they’ll make it damned well, and the chances are that I’ll want to listen to it and them for many years to come. The Roots of old may never return, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make significant music in the next chapter. Not one bit.

[1] Pun retroactively intended.

[2] Barenaked Ladies, Aqua, and Harry Potter. The unholy trinity.

[3] Can you imagine how such a ridiculous finale would get ripped apart in the Facebook/Twitter stratospheres? Holy shit that’s bad writing.

[4] I should say, “It seems that he reflects.” While it’s possible that this is simply another character, I get the feeling that this is Dice Raw speaking from experience.

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