James Brandon Lewis is a New York-based saxophonist and composer. His most recent release is Divine Travels, which features collaborations with the poet Thomas Sayers Ellis. He has a MFA from California Institute of the Arts and a BFA from Howard University. You can follow him on Twitter here.
“I shall proceed and continue to rock the mike.”
— the Roots, “Proceed” (1995)
To proceed means “to move along a course” and “to continue to do something.” The Roots proceed: they move forward and continue to push the limit of how we define hip-hop, in the same way that so many musicians of my generation try to define “what is jazz?”
The purpose of any artistic statement is to force questions and dialogue, and the Roots’ …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, their 11th studio album, does just that. The cover itself, by the late, legendary African-American artist Romare Bearden, is a challenge: a collage of abstract images and faces, it’s like a cracked mirror of what we deem perfect. It seems to be a comment about the codification of hip-hop. And so, right away, the Roots challenge and question what we think the path should be for themselves — and for us.
…And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is a challenging listen, which it should be. It was not at all what I thought it was going to be. I had to let go of what I was used to hearing and bring fresh ears to investigating this album, and to be open to the artist presenting a new project, not trying to recreate their past albums or cater to nostalgia for the history of hip-hop. I had to deal with the artist and where they are at this moment.
After the intro, a sample of Nina Simone’s “Theme from the Middle of the Night,” the album properly opens with “Never.” The piece begins with a few percussive hits, then a choir enters and lead vocalist Patty Crash, sounding like a child, sings, “As I look down/all I see is never.” As the Roots’ rapper Black Thought enters, the mournful texture of the song around him changes, scaling back to sparse percussion. It’s then propelled forward by triplets in his delivery, which is brilliant — triplet rhythm is found in so many musical soundscapes, and can give music a tug but also move it forward.
The third track, “When the People Cheer,” is a soundscape of playful DJ scratches and murmuring keyboards juxtaposed against aggressive deliveries from Black Thought and frequent Roots collaborator Greg Porn as well as a haunting refrain from singer Modesty Lycan that sums up the vibe of the whole album: “Everybody acts like God is all that/but I got a feeling He ain’t never coming back.”
From beginning to end, this album is a cohesive journey to the dark hour when man faces the brunt of humanity, self and living on this planet, that moment you question everything, even the existence of God. It stays within the framework of tragedy until the ending piece “Tomorrow,” which offers some optimism, using an appropriately gospel-like structure. Guest vocalist Raheem DeVaughn belts, “Everybody wants tomorrow right now,” which sums up this generation and the technological age.
…And Then You Shoot Your Cousin requires an investment, because there are always more things to pick up on. To listen to this music means walking away with questions. And we should question: it’s part of being a human being.