If hip hop was founded on principles of sampling, then The Roots are not only its protégés, but also its modern purveyors. The Philadelphia-based hip-hop band’s 11th studio album and second consecutive concept album (following 2011’s undun) is a bleak, multi-perspective social commentary on hip-hop culture and violence in America that carefully samples other sources to seriously and satirically substantiate its assessment.
Even starting with the album cover, The Roots selected highly specific works to quote throughout ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin. Visual artist and activist Romare Bearden’s 1964 collage “Pittsburgh Memory”—a jagged, Picasso-esque depiction of two black men looking both brazen and thoughtful—graces the entire cover, while the album name comes from a line in the 1997 KRS-One song “Step Into a World (Rapture’s Delight).” It pits visual stereotypes against those of gangster rap lyrics even before the album starts.
And when the music does start, The Roots begin by sampling Nina Simone’s jazzy, lonesome 1959 recording of “Theme from the Middle of the Night.” It takes a full three minutes of the less-than-40-minute-album before Black Thought opens with “I was born faceless in an oasis / Folks disappear here and leave no traces” in “Never.” The mortal themes continue throughout ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, especially when influenced by religiosity. “The Devil” lifts a section of jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams’ song of the same name and in “Dies Irae,” French experimental composer Michel Chion offers a strange and jagged version of the famous and somber plainchant.
In each track throughout ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, a different character explores these plights of violence, labels and poverty with the help of their multi-disciplinary predecessors. But The Roots maintain a sense of humor through this diatribe, giving nods to Phil Collins, Jay Z, The Lonely Island and more, all in lead single “When The People Cheer.”
...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is a short album, and one with sparingly few “hits.” But conceptually, The Roots prove their mastery of mixing high and low culture for diverse audiences. It’s a headier album, but one rife with significance.