The Roots' new album draws from the past, looks to future

In their time off from working with Jimmy Fallon on "The Tonight Show," the Roots recorded a soul-searching new album; titled after a KRS-One lyric, " . . . And Then You Shoot Your Cousin" mines black culture's rich history.
In their time off from working with Jimmy Fallon on "The Tonight Show," the Roots recorded a soul-searching new album; titled after a KRS-One lyric, " . . . And Then You Shoot Your Cousin" mines black culture's rich history. (NBC)
Posted: May 19, 2014

Think for a minute about how long the Roots, the Philadelphia hip-hop band, has managed to stick around and stay relevant.

. . . And Then You Shoot Your Cousin (Def Jam ***1/2), out Tuesday, is the 11th studio album by the group helmed by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter since they debuted with Organix in 1993.

But the roots of the Roots go back even further, all the way to the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts in South Philadelphia in the late 1980s.

As Questlove put it on his Facebook page last week: "25 years ago in high school my best friend and I wanted to start a group so we could 'be the man' in assembly and at sentimental journey (our annual school performance) - boyz ii men overshadowed all the assembly performances and we never quite made the cut . . . We did however, vow to never give up: the prize and reward were too great: walk around the gallery mall with enough cinnabon money and some cool gear to pull jawns."

A quarter of a century later, Boyz II Men are on the 1990s oldies circuit, and the Roots are the most visible musicians in America, even more so since becoming the Tonight Show band when Jimmy Fallon took over for Jay Leno in February.

And their cultural reach goes even further. In Philadelphia, they'll host the seventh annual Roots Picnic on May 31 at Festival Pier, with Snoop Dogg and the War on Drugs among the acts. On July 4, they'll be house band for the Welcome America! celebration with Nicki Minaj, Ed Sheeran, and Ariana Grande.

From Questlove, there's also an acclaimed memoir, Mo' Meta Blues, and a coffee-table book about Soul Train. He has a collaboration coming up with Bobby McFerrin at the Blue Note Jazz Festival in New York, and he'll be executive producer for Soundclash, the VH1 music show premiering in July.

And then there's "How Hip-Hop Failed Black America," the six-part series Questlove has written for New York magazine. It wrestles with what hip-hop's role is now that it has become a dominant form of pop music.

"Once hip-hop culture is ubiquitous, it is also invisible," he writes, "Once it's everywhere, it is nowhere."

So where do the Roots go from here?

. . . And Then You Shoot Your Cousin looks for answers by going forward while drawing from the black culture's rich history.

Hyped as a concept album though it does not tell a discernible linear story, the surprisingly short 37-minute set takes its name from a line in the 1997 KRS-One song "Step Into a World (Rapture's Delight)." The album cover's two masked faces look like rapper MF Doom, but it's actually Pittsburgh Memory, a 1964 mixed-media collage by African American artist Romare Bearden.

Cousin begins with an extended sample of Nina Simone's string-laden 1959 recording of "Theme from the Middle of the Night," which sets the album's soul-searching tone. The Simone track is also a signal that Cousin will refuse to hew to expectations about what hip-hop needs to sound like.

There's no shortage of rapping, from members of the extended Roots crew such as Dice Raw and Greg Porn. Black Thought announces he's in top form straight away when rhyming about inner-city hopelessness on the Portishead-like track "Never":

I was born faceless in the oasis

Folks disappear here and leave no traces

No family ties, n- no laces

Less than a full deck, n- no aces

Waiting on Superman, losing all patience.

But Cousin is an arty record at heart, mixing street savvy with high seriousness. There's a noisy excerpt from French experimental composer Michel Chion's Dies Irae, and jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams' "The Devil" deepens the self-examination. The division between man and his better nature is probed further in "Understand": "People ask for God til the day he comes / See God's face, turn around and run."

When the band performed the album last week at the Public Theater in New York, it felt as much like a performance-art listening party as a concert.

For the most part, Questlove DJ'd rather than played drums. Hundreds of balloons dropped from the ceiling and sounded eerily like gunshots as they popped as Black Thought or breakdancer Jay Donn or didgeridoo player Craig Harris came and went. Nooses hung from the ceiling. The only real band moment came when Roots guitarist Kirk Douglas played a lyrical, soaring version of Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain."

The show concluded with Questlove turning sampled Sun Ra lyrics into a repeated mantra - "If you're not a myth, whose reality are you? If you're not a reality, whose myth are you?"

The New York performance also featured avant pianist D.D. Jackson and the violinists of the Metropolis Ensemble. Cousin's pop art-meets-high-art approach follows a blueprint laid out by "Philly-Paris Lockdown," the collaboration between Questlove and singer Keren Ann at the Kimmel Center for the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts in 2011.

Is the album a relentless downer?

Not entirely. It pulses with musical ingenuity, and concludes with "Tomorrow," showcasing singer Raheem DaVaughn. "Can't nobody last forever, everybody has to die," DaVaughn sings. But with a simple piano hook and carefree whistling, it strikes a determinedly optimistic note.

It sounds like a hit, and as close to "Don't Worry, Be Happy" as the anxiety-ridden . . . And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is ever going to get.



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