Adding to his burgeoning portfolio as a respected drummer, DJ, TV personality, and memoirist, the Roots’ Ahmir “QuestLove” Thompson has recently taken to writing features for New York Magazine, about topics ranging from his music education to his reaction to the Trayvon Martin ruling. The latest, a continuing six-part series titled “How Hip-Hop Failed Black America” has been as eloquent and interesting as his other contributions, an erudite examination of one genre’s slide from roots-oriented populism to the furthest reaches of conspicuous consumption. But there’s an element of disingenuousness to this current project, since the solution to many of the problems he’s presented with the genre’s current state of affairs—or at least one of the few curatives posed against the hollow corner it’s been painted into—can be found in the music of his own group, who conveniently has a new album out this week.
...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin opportunely presents exactly the sort of political-minded, issues-oriented album QuestLove claims has vanished from the music landscape, forsaking any focus on bluster or material goods, pushing the spotlight to the bottom of the economic ladder rather than the top. Presented via a shattered-glass spectrum of on-the-ground viewpoints, it uses a linked series of sketches to illustrate the grim toll of violence, drug-dealing, and poverty in poor black communities, detailing these points through a procession of marginalized characters. These are the peripheral figures usually shunted to the side in rap narratives: the helpless, the hopeless, and the pathetic—those for whom tough conditions serve as a trap rather than the initial motivator toward greatness. Quest’s self-promotion leading up to the release may feel a bit cheap, and the self-important grandiosity conveyed in the group’s taking up of the mantle of the oppressed is as present as ever, but it’s hard to deny the overall effect of this strange, smartly conceived album.
So while the accusations that hip-hop’s social justice wing has totally collapsed are more than a bit overblown, particularly myopic in regard to how that sense of justice has changed and infused into different strains within the mainstream, ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin does offer something rare in today’s climate: It’s an album whose sole focus is reportage, with no individual aspirational narrative to disguise the ugliness. It’s a purposefully fragmented work, in which main vocalist Black Thought provides the clearest through line, popping in and out of songs dotted with a roster of repeating guest stars, mostly group affiliates like Dice Raw and Greg Porn.
They take on a variety of voices, offering quick snapshots from various sectors of ghetto experience: “Black Rock” imagines street vagrants munching on early morning cheeseburgers, their jittery desperation echoed by galumphing piano and a hard-edged drumbeat; “The Dark (Trinity)” features frustrated corner boys getting soaked in the rain, their arrogance wilting as the spare, steady music grows increasingly mournful. All this gets echoed by the group’s live-band aesthetic, which pieces together revised versions of traditional soul instrumentation with spooky atonal strings and jagged samples, jumping from Nina Simone to Mary Lou Williams to Michel Chion, the patchwork structure conveying the feeling of a culture broken into pieces, exploiting those rifts to explore the full extent of hip-hop’s literary capabilities.
There’s also the welcome fact that ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is a trim 35 minutes in length, with 11 tracks and eight proper songs, zooming through its disjointed structure without much padding. This slimness functions as a counterweight to the often stifling subject matter, as the group employs its soul-influenced backdrops in a way that feels totally opposed to what most modern hip-hop is doing. The Roots have a different sense of the music, and a further commitment to developing its ideas, rather than just miming them. In keeping with the album’s inverted sense of order, there’s no nostalgia here, and instead that warm soul sound is repeatedly pushed into twisted horror-movie palettes, with repeated references to hell and waking nightmares, the music tilting into mechanistic repetition on tracks like “The Unraveling,” with its churning, gloomy atmospherics.
A depiction of disorder and chaos, ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin places almost no focus on the hard-working everymen of the traditional soul milieu, zoning in on the desolate and the down and out, nightmare scenarios in which dreams of riches molder inside condemned buildings. While this approach sacrifices some potential subtlety in exchange for a broader, stereotype-tweaking social crusading, one perhaps a bit too enamored of its crusader status, it’s hard to deny the effect, the album’s approach integrating neatly into an overall sense of claustrophobic dread.