I promise this isn't a shameless plug, but did y'all check out Yoh's piece? With "Want Better Hip-Hop? Be a Better Fan," Yoh pointed the finger back at us, challenging both you and me to be better hip-hop fans. He left us with these final words, "For the love of music, become a great audience." After I was done relishing in his slick prose, I thought one thing, "how?" It's not an easy question to answer, but I think I know where to start.
Though The Roots' ...and then you shoot your cousin has been out for a few weeks now (which equals about a year on the internet), I haven't had the chance to sit down and really listen to it as I do with new albums from my most beloved artists. Well, it seems like fate that I waited until now, because I think ...and then you shoot your cousin is the answer—well at least the start of one anyway—to Yoh's declaration.
Sometimes when a big movie comes out that I want to see, I will avoid all previews and even leave the theater should one come on; I do the same thing with music. However, like a kid who just found his presents two weeks before Christmas, I couldn't help but sneak a peek into one of the corners. Ugh...socks. At least that's what I've been hearing. From friends to Facebook statuses, and even Grantland, all my corner peeking left me worried, as reviews have been less than stellar; often sounding more like a "dafuq" than a resounding yes or no. I must have heard, "It's, um, different" about seven times, each one in that way where "different" really means "I don't like it but am too scared to say so." Did we hear the same album?
Okay, we did. I can see how this album could be challenging, especially if you love Illadelph and Phrenology (and I'll get to that in a minute), but it's also good in its own right. I'm paraphrasing him but what I gathered from Nathan in one of Gchat's is that he doesn't think this album "sounds good" and to him, it's not the same as the old Roots. Nathan seems to agree with Steven Hyden from Grantland who called cousin, "an album that the majority of pop fans will have no interest in hearing". The point is there has been a lot of talk about how this album doesn't "sound" good, but I strongly disagree. Sure, it's not straight hip-hop, but at a time when, personally, I have been branching out and find myself listening to a lot of non-hip-hop, this album is still very good.
There is so much diversity. I mean "The Coming", a theatrical song that a song that sounds like it belongs in a Broadway play or on the Frozen 2 soundtrack, melts into the drum-driven, and very hip-hop friendly "The Dark" seamlessly; despite the very different approaches. The Roots are very different on this album—Black Though sounds more like an accessory than the engine—but just because it's different doesn't mean it's bad. As someone who appreciates almost every single genre of music, I can find something enjoyable on all but "Dies Irae" (no idea what that was). You can say it's not your style or you didn't like it, but to say this album doesn't sound good is short-sighted. It may not be hip-hop, but the Th Roots are still talented musicians who know how to create an interesting, engaging song. I don't think the "it doesn't sound good" argument I seem to be hearing is valid—did their versions not have, "Tomorrow"?—but for argument's sake, I'll engage.
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As stimulating as I find Thompson as a thinker on pop music no matter the medium he’s using, Cousin is weighted with too many signifiers of an Important Artistic Statement for me to fully engage with it on an emotional level —Steven Hayden
So every song on here isn't a "You Got Me". I definitely won't be playing "The Unraveling" with the windows down on a sunny Saturday like I do with "What they do" Does that mean there is no value in this album? I don't know how Hayden, a music writer can't connect with this on an emotional level. To you, me, Steven, and Questlove nothing is more emotional than the state of music. If you haven't been following, Questo has been wrestling with some pretty important topics in his six essay collection on Vulture. You should really read them all, but what I took most from it was that this album has a purpose, a well-thought-out, well-crafted mission.
The Roots don't strike me as musicians who take their music lightly. Like a good movie director, each and every detail matters, no how big or how small and if they did something it's probably on purpose. The Roots didn't make because nobody had the heart to tell 'em it's no "Star". They made it because they already made "Star" and now, as veterans, who see the industry suffering, they want to right the ship by making us engage with the music, challenging our own personal views of what we demand from artists and what we think hip-hop should sound like.
A few months ago, I marveled at Miles Davis decision to challenge normal jazz standards with "Bitches Brew." Not to say ...and then you shoot your cousin is a groundbreaking as "Bitches Brew," but I feel like some of the principles are the same; both push your limits, sonically, in an effort to show just how dynamic and multidimensional music can be. If you want The Root to go into the studio and attempt to recreate a sound they made 15 years ago this probably isn't the album for you. However, if you want to listen to an original, inventive album, made to challenge those golden era fans (and mainstream fans alike) then this album is very much a success. This is evident after reading what Questlove had to say in the first installment of his essays,
"The music originally evolved to paint portraits of real people and handle real problems at close range — social contract, anyone? — but these days, hip-hop mainly rearranges symbolic freight on the black starliner. Containers on the container ship are taken from here to there — and never mind the fact that they may be empty containers. Keep on pushin’ and all that, but what are you pushing against? As it has become the field rather than the object, hip-hop has lost some of its pertinent sting."
Yoh is right, it is on us. So when a rapper, singer, or band as important to hip-hop as the Roots and they want to try something new, instead of longing for the days we will never get back to because hip-hop has grown so much, why don't we encourage these kinds of experiments? We punish artist for not trying new things but when they do we groan for the classics.We want them to make great music, but then clinch our backpacks so tight that they cut off blood to the part of the brain that can enjoy something even if it is played a million times or just sounds good. We criticize one of the greatest bands of our generation because, after 10 albums, they didn't make another "Seed 2.0." I don't want another "Seed 2.0," I have that already. I want a band that will take risks and blur genres in an effort to make music better further down the road. It may not be as universally fun or versatile as Home Grown! The Beginner's Guide to Understanding The Roots, Volume 1, but ...and then you shoot your cousin serves a very timely, very important purpose, to redefine how we approach music.
Even if you don't love this album—maybe the guest features were too much or you hate the almost indie-pop feel on "Never"—read Questlove's essays, talk to people about it, get out of your comfort zone; it's not always about the notes but sometimes what's between them. I promise it will make you a better fan.