I’m still trying to get over the sheer excellence that was The Roots’ last album, undun, but given the overlords of modern hip-hop’s most recent release, & Then You Shoot Your Cousin, I’m beginning to move on. Undun was a craft of no other, a reverse-chronological concept album on the life of a fictitious African-American male living in poverty that discusses modern social dilemmas in a context of existentialism, featuring guest musical appearances from current powerhouses in different sectors of music with Sufjan Stevens performing a song as well as a beat by the New York’s own unique producer; Hot Sugar. But here with &TYSYC we have possibly the most densely complex release from The Roots yet, every line reverberating satire and social commentary of different “characters” in the black community that they have come into contact with. This strikes the heart of &TYSYC, it acts in a way that honors the conceptual basis of undun yet uniquely appears conceptually satirical through a song by song basis, almost every verse representing and/or ridiculing a certain “character” or situation in the African-American community.
I usually neglect the importance of introductions of hip-hop or rap albums, as in several cases I’ve found them to be meaningless to the album as a whole, yet, “Theme From the Middle of The Night” acts like no other introduction I’ve ever heard. Here The Roots are able to bridge the cultural highlights of African-American music through the sampling of jazz singer Nina Simone on a modern hip-hop album. The introduction forces the listener to understand that the target of this album will be to illustrate the lives and motives of those desperate “lonely loves” with their “false hearts” who ultimately can never accept to swallow “their pride”.
— Questlove Gomez (@questlove) May 17, 2014
This opener ripples over into the following track as Black Thought actually explicitly alludes to it discussing “lonely love” and “your pride”. Black Thought uses this first verse of the album to target a pretty non-specific identity in the African-American community, the one of the youthful drug dealing, possible gang member. Weighing the immense opportunity that the world offers to sheer apathy of those “Waitin’ on Superman” (possible reference to the 2010 documentary on American education or even The Flaming Lips song of the same name). Aspects of drug life and gang membership are noted throughout which may be what causes for the young man who is “destined to drown” by the pressures of poverty in this “oasis” of opportunity.
“When the People Cheer” is currently my favorite song released in 2014 and I suppose can be summed up best by my friend saying, “this is undun material”. Not that undun is the true pinnacle of The Roots’ career as his held evident by this album, yet its style and production is nostalgic of the release of undun. Greg Porn namely targets the presence of greed in certain players in the black community, constantly striving to make more money despite the convictions of their Parole Officer and further locking themselves in the trap, or here the “bird trap”. It appears as if Greg understands what the cage bird sings, but many sing for freedom to garner greater riches rather than freedom to be an individual. This song Black Thought is able to emulate a struggle in possibly everyone growing up in the modern era, the battle between ethical deeds and existential apathy.
“Black Rock” hits home on a different level as unlike the prior songs, it discusses circumstances that are not created by the subject, such as the presence of food deserts in impoverished areas, feeling like “cattle in a slaughterhouse” that are being used for cheap labor to reap serious profit; all the while understanding the consequences of past mistakes that ultimately leads to a questioning of the character’s suicide as the song depicts a living situation of a person dealing with pressures of poverty and the mistakes of days past.
The 7th track follows a conceptual pattern of the rise and fall of a man in the drug game of the streets, gaining money hand over fist but inevitably collapsing due to stress, alcoholism and unconcerned women. Black Thought uses this opportunity to reach possibly the most clearly satirical point of the album, juxtaposing the prominent religious affiliation in the black community with the unethical nature of meaningless sex, greed and gang activity. It is here that Black Thought portrays the true absurdity of this hypocrisy and condemns modern rap and hip-hop for continuing this behavior.
Referencing a Latin poem on the judgment of God, “Dies Irae” seems appropriate at this point in the album as it has been made clear that the lives of those emulated throughout the first half of the album are reaching their end.
Possibly the weakest song of the album “The Coming” is forgettable and lacks astounding musicianship seen in the rest of the album, but still serves to depict the female perspective on life in possibly the slums of Philadelphia or another urban area. It shows how gender equality has pushed females into a state of seeking a better life but the inability of some to escape the forces of cultural norms and societal pressures that has shaped her “road” that she is forced to follow.
A Breaking Bad reference, condemning modern hip-hop artists, depicting the inability of humans to accurately foresee the future, “The Dark” is lyrically one of the most astounding tracks of the album. Intended to ridicule modern artists on their obsessions with guns and murder for profit, Black Thought intends to render the rappers as laughable and insignificant to the cultural importance of hip-hop in America.
Possibly the most dense track on the album, “The Gathering” appears to be a continuation of “Sleep” from the previous album in their respective approaches to describing death. As in “Sleep” this song functions as a man on the brink of death, looking back onto his life without satisfaction yet feeling “free at last!” (quoting Dr. Marin Luther King Jr.) in a Death of a Salesman as he is purged of all debts that is brought about in the American financial system, yet the only way to escape for many is that of death.
An interesting, yet effective choice in track ordering is evident in the final track “Tomorrow”, juxtaposing to the dark realities of the previous song. An upbeat jazzy piano and whistling provides a backdrop to the cheery description of the man who is a credit to a society, one who is hardworking, sees money as independent to happiness and attempts to live a life of service to better the lives of others. “Tomorrow” closes the album by tying up all ends of the satire by setting a standard for how the average person in the black community should live as juxtaposed to the plethora of sub-standard characters mentioned throughout the album.
The Roots’ have made a significant accomplishment in the world of hip-hop with the release of …and then you shoot your cousin as they keep to their more philosophical and prophetic intentions by satirizing the inner-workings of American black society. This hasn’t even covered the entirety of even the tip of the iceberg of this album, time will only allow us to gauge the implications of this album as our understanding and appreciation of it increases dramatically with every listen.
Catch The Roots on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon every night, upcoming shows in New York organized by Dave Chappelle, and other various festivals. The Roots will be performing with Jimmy Fallon as he brings his show to Orlando for a week in June with Questlove doing a DJ set at The Social for 3 nights in a row, Jimmy Fallon’s show may be sold out but don’t miss out on any chance to see The Roots or Questlove at work.