In 2014, The Roots are at once closer to and further removed from the pop culture mainstream than they’ve ever been. While they’re on network television five nights a week, wringing chuckles as the game house band for Jimmy Fallon’s Gen X-hugging update of The Tonight Show, they’ve all but given up on reaching that same mass audience with their albums, which have grown increasingly exploratory. An artistic triumph that sold poorly even for a Roots record, 2011’s Undun distanced the band from the very hip-hop that was once the core of their sound, downplaying hard beats in favor of mellow soul fusion, yet that record plays like a veritable pop grab compared to the band’s elusive 11th studio offering, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin. It’s an album so fragmented that when it breaks for a noise collage from French experimental composer Michel Chion halfway through, it hardly feels like a disruption.
Like its predecessor, Shoot Your Cousin is a concept album, though it abandons Undun’s linear narrative for a more impressionistic exploration of urban violence. If the album’s title is the grim punchline, then these songs are the setup, with rapper Black Thought (who continues to drift further to the band’s margins with each album) and Roots affiliates Dice Raw and Greg Porn sketching caricatures of drug-slinging, destruction-bound ghetto casualties. “Am I a douchebag or just another doo rag?” Greg Porn ponders as he wastes another day sleeping in and ducking his parole officer on “When The People Cheer,” one of several tracks that unfolds like a brief, bleary fairy tale. Dice Raw’s excitable dealer starts his day off more purposefully on the piano-kicked “Black Rock,” downing a cheeseburger and a 40-ounce for breakfast (“same as yesterday,” he boasts).
Shoot Your Cousin springs to life during these verses, which inject some welcome shots of rap into an album that sometimes gets bogged down by arty instrumental stretches and symphonic weirdness, but all that satire leaves behind a sour aftertaste. None of these characters are granted the same sympathy or dimension of Redford Stephens, the tragic hustler at the heart of Undun. They exist only as strawmen, flash commentary on the often callous portrayal of black youth in American culture and commercial rap music, and along with the album’s oddball musical interludes, they lend Shoot Your Cousin an air of uneasy detachment. With their 11th effort, The Roots have managed yet another album individualistic like little else in hip-hop, but unlike their best work this one’s more interested in scholastic provocation than genuine pathos.