The Roots

… And Then You Shoot Your Cousin…

[Def Jam]

4 stars

If you only know the Roots as the house band on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show, and have grown accustomed to them playing along as Fallon acts the fool, or participating in the odd hilarious skit, then you don’t really know the Roots. Drummer Questlove and lead MC Black might be all smiles during their “day gig,” but after the clock out at the Fallon show, the Roots are hip-hop’s greatest band, and they take their responsibilities seriously. And those responsibilities include bringing some realism to the great American conversation.

“...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin...,” the band’s 11th album, arrives like a shovel to the back of the head. It is a sophisticated, ambitious and deeply musical affair, but its outlook is one of all but complete despair. A message in a bottle thrown from deep within an urban hell, the album pulls no punches, speaking in a language of existential hopelessness that remains consistent throughout all but one of its 11 tracks. If you’re uncomfortable by halfway through your listening experience, well, mission accomplished. “Cousin” isn’t here to make you feel good about yourself, your country, or your future prospects as part of the 99 percent.

The magic that has always set the Roots apart from their peers – an ability to call on a serious musical education, a plentiful instrumental virtuosity, and a musicologist’s understanding of the history of American music – is all over “Cousin.” The band’s hip-hop always has been informed by jazz and funk, but much of the rhythmic and harmonic information underpinning these new songs comes from a time before funk; a 1960s-era soul-jazz vibe permeates, and is married with a seemingly effortless grace to the band’s progressive conception of what hip-hop might be.

Anger, despair and emptiness inform the texts, and MC Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter seems to be engaging in a bit of satire here, as if giving voice to what the media often delivers as stereotypes of urban characters. “When the People Cheer,” “Black Rock,” “Understand” – these riveting pieces of music are married to narratives that depict the underside of American life, one rife with violence, drugs, busted families and broken possibilities. The tenor is forbidding, harrowing, bereft of hope, the atmosphere claustrophobic, and the band’s impeccable musicianship serves to underscore this gritty realism.

It’s a tough but worthwhile ride, and if you make it to the end, you’ll be rewarded with the album’s sole optimistic piece. “Tomorrow” arrives like a rainbow after a particularly violent storm, and seals the deal. “...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin...” is a dynamic and masterfully paced gem, and one of the finest hip-hop albums of this, or any other, time.

- Jeff Miers