Your conversations about …and then you shoot your cousin, the eleventh Roots album, are bound to be long, complicated, and at least a little ideological. If you haven’t been keeping up, Questlove is writing for Vulture a six-part series of essays called “How Hip-Hop Failed Black America”. The legendary crew’s longtime leader is a well-read man, but more often than not the pieces play out like a longwinded treatment for the “What They Do” video. Future is quoted in full (meaning “I woke up in a new Bugatti” is written five times in succession, presumably to make some type of point), and is then admonished for buying expensive things. For a group that has one of the cushiest gigs in late-night television – and one of rap’s warmest relationships with critics – it’s a clumsy, alienating move, one that threatens to age the group before its audience’s eyes.
All that said, the purist bent of one (non-rapping) member of a group does not a botched album make, especially when that man is a superlatively talented musician. In fact, this kind of stylistic dogma has precipitated exceptional rap albums time and time again. Masta Ace’s 2001 comeback album Disposable Arts is an engaging, dynamic masterpiece, even when Ace is kicking new rappers off his proverbial lawn.
Unfortunately, …and then you shoot your cousin has none of Arts’ earnestness, none of the joie de vivre that can ground records about such weighty subject matter. Instead, the album picks up where 2011’s undun left off: long, ornate instrumental suites and drab moral absolutism. People want to get rich and lack conscience; the misguided characters are attracted to “bod[ies] of lies with fat asses.” Dice Raw’s hook on “Black Rock” is painfully blunt: “The only thing in front of me is a bullet in the head/They hoping one day that they find me dead.” Is this not ground that has been tread before?
That you could read this many words about a new Roots album without mention of Black Thought is worrisome in its own way. Worse, the problem runs deeper than a scarcity of verses. Long celebrated as one of rap’s premier lyricists (and for good reason), Thought has nevertheless failed to tackle this kind of cautionary tale in a manner that employs and nuance or empathy. From single “When The People Cheer”: “I said, ‘You wanna pay for class? Get on that stage and shake your ass’/She keep a dick in a box and in an emergency break the glass.” His character is a hollow archetype; cousin fails in a profound way to deliver on its promise to cut through to some deeper truth about the human condition. The album is a series of strawmen propped on stage for a half-hour, and no amount of mid-brow jazz breaks can bring them to life.