[20 June 2014]
No, not everyone listens to their music. Not everyone knew about them until the last few years due to Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Not everyone knows that they are easily one of the most innovative outfits in hip-hop music. But the Roots are still around. I am sure everyone remembers (or has at least heard of) “The Movement”. For me, it was a pinnacle in hip-hop: combining neo-soul with a gritty presence. Nobody could doubt that from “The Movement” onward, the Roots would become a fundamental pioneer in hip-hop. Since then the group has collaborated with artists from a wide variety of genres. That is probably why I felt like they stepped out of their comfort zone with this album. … and Then You Shoot Your Cousin is really dreary, depressing and grey. That’s a good thing. The Roots have always been good at creating music that is despondent and melancholy. However, never has it sounded so boring.
That’s not to say that this album doesn’t go anywhere, because the production shifts beautifully, especially on the Frank Ocean-influenced “Never”, which features an odd array of instruments sparsely played during a breakdown with a string section. Patty Crash does a bearable job of keeping herself relevant even if this song clearly would’ve been just fine without her input. Greg Porn pops up next on “When The People Cheer”, which has a beat very similar to “Where’s the Fun in Forever” by Miguel. Listening to the first 15 seconds of the track automatically tells me the concept of this album isn’t necessarily lyrical. It’s slightly more to do with the production. I might be wrong, but the interludes more or less determine a link through to the next track.
“Black Rock” is easily one of my favorite songs on the album, and it’s not because it returns to the Roots I know and love. It’s because it’s more upbeat in comparison to the majority of this album. The production leans slightly towards that which can be heard from Chiddy Bang. The singing however is another story. At several points throughout the chorus, I had to pause the song due to the amount of bum notes I came across. It is a little more than a karaoke. I don’t know if this is deliberate; I just know it grated on my ears. Mercedes Martinez does absolutely nothing to add to her feature on “The Coming”, which sounds a lot less interesting compared to “Never”, even though they have eerily similar song structures. Unlike “Never”, which manages to balance its weird orchestra breakdown with a rather contemporary beginning and ending, “The Coming” doesn’t feel cohesive, nor does it benefit from singer with a distinguished voice. It wouldn’t have made a big difference if Rihanna featured on the track instead of Martinez. The production follows through to “The Dark (Trinity)”, which features Greg Porn & Dice Raw. It doesn’t lift the spirit of the album, nor does it play to either rapper’s strengths. It just drags.
The most boring and disappointing parts of the album, though, are at the end and unfortunately given to Raheem DeVaughn. It’s so unfortunate that he’s given the two worst songs on the album because he is such a talented singer. However, nothing could lift “The Unravelling” and “Tomorrow”, even if there a million different remixes by a million different producers. The former track takes almost 80 seconds in order to hear him sing. There is nothing that is particularly engaging about the production on the introduction either, just a few piano chords and a drum sample that’s stuck on repeat as opposed to composed. Raheem sounds like he’s chanting rather than singing throughout and the breakdown is almost futile as it conjures up no creativity.
“Tomorrow” is even worse, with Raheem just singing about how things can be better if we put others ahead of ourselves and stop concentrating on riches. (Where have I heard that before?) Not one part of the closing song is redeeming, as it sees the Roots delve into Jason Mraz trying-to-do-Urban-music-with-a-folk-twist territory with pitiful results. The song only ends up sounding like a poor R&B take on “Waiting on the World to Change” by John Mayer. The childish piano chords and very basic composition sounds it was made for a children’s TV show. The switch-up two-thirds of the way in is welcomed but it does little to save a track that plunges itself into cringe-worthy ruin way before it gets through the first minute.
If there is one song that tops the others, it’s “Understand”. The track harks back to Jay-Z and Kanye’s better days (remember those?) and the Roots brightest moments in their career. After a very brief breakdown from the drum kit, the melody is presented in the form of a set of organ chords. The track then settles into its own groove and ends up becoming a song more like the Roots in every way. I admit that I prefer Greg Porn on this track, but Dice Raw holds his own, especially with the opening words on his verse (“Holy Sugar/Honey/Iced/Tea / I guess that’s a prayer for a player like me”). The interludes may not be particularly interesting on meaningful, but they serve their purpose and even switch things up every now and then. Ultimately, the album always will fall short of the standard the Roots set for themselves. This isn’t horrific. No, if anything, horrific is good for a band that constantly makes horrific sound good. It’s just the Roots resting on the laurels. I think they may need another movement.