Album Review: The Roots, "...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin"

Five years after their unlikely reinvention as Jimmy Fallon's secret weapon, The Roots are only getting weirder - and that's a good thing. Back in 2009, hip-hop fans were fretful of the band's move to late-night TV, which threatened to recast one of the genre's sacred icons as backup for a guy then best-known for impersonating Barry Gibb. The outcome was less bleak than it sounded, to say the least. The Roots, now in 3 million homes a night as part of Fallon's new run hosting The Tonight Show, haven't been sublimated by their day job. Instead they've been liberated, clearing the way for their own art to take provocative left turns.

"...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin" is as far left as this band has been during its 20-year-plus career. The third proper Roots album of the Fallon era (11th total, excluding a trio of collaborative sets with John Legend, Betty Wright and Elvis Costello), it's unusually brief - just over 30 minutes - dark and bitter, like a bite of 90 percent chocolate.

In a repeat of their prior LP, 2011's "Undun," "...And Then" is a concept album, this time expanding the lens from a single character to trace the inner lives of a colorful cast of strivers, each eking out an existence on society's fringes. Its overcast, cinematic atmosphere is set by Nina Simone, whose chilling vocals from the soundtrack to the 1959 film "Middle of the Night" open the album. Here's The Roots' own reliable narrator, rapper Black Thought, picking up the baton on the subsequent, no-less-eerie "Never": "I was born faceless in an oasis, folks here disappear with no traces/No family ties, n-a, no laces/Less than a full deck, n-a, no aces."

A theme of the album is religion-as-crutch, with characters representing the devil, the messiah and mankind, all equally misunderstood and in need of reckoning. After the gospel organ of "Understand," things unravel on "Dies Irae" (Latin for "Day of Wrath"), a dissonant series of atonal blasts and halting silences that sounds like the last transmissions of a starship entering a black hole.

Tonally, "...And Then's closest forebear in The Roots' catalog is 2008's nihilistic Rising Down, which mined Bush-era anomie for an oppressive onslaught. But "...And Then" is more unnerving than aggressive, haunted by ghostly female voices, jarring instrumental asides and James Poyser's mournful keys. On "The Coming," one of several tracks where Black Thought doesn't appear, it's Mercedes Martinez of the Jazzyfatnastees whose honeydew vocals float over a twinkling piano bed that turns sour and cacophonous. Elsewhere, rappers Greg Porn and Dice Raw take the lead. Perhaps because of Fallon, Black Thought, one of rap's sharpest MCs, has grown used to letting others take the spotlight.

Already on a career trajectory singular among all American bands, The Roots have left their known universe in a bold exploration of strange new themes and sounds. "...And Then" may alienate some core fans, and it certainly won't spawn radio hits like "Break You Off" and "You Got Me." But this isn't an act in need of exposure. In the Fallon era, provocations are welcome.


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