The Roots Settle Into A Groove That Suits Them
The Roots have always been a vexing band for me. I love them. Growing up, I was one of the nerdy white kids hanging out next to the soundboard at their live sets. I’ve seen them at small venues, outdoor festivals, free campus shows, you name it. I love the band so much, I even once overpaid to attend a block party where ?uestlove spun records to hype the crowd for a Mos Def headlining set. I say all that not to prove my hip-hop bona fides, but to hopefully ameliorate the slight criticism I’m about to lay out.
For most of the band’s existence, The Roots have made somewhat disappointing studio records. This is not entirely their fault. At first, this was a function of money, technology, and inexperience. The major issue with the Roots’ early records was that the band could never capture the excitement and ferocity of their live shows. Producers struggled to make hip-hop albums featuring a full backing band. Furthermore, Black Thought feeds off the crowd like few MCs on the planet, and Rahzel must be seen in person to understand the completeness of his artistry. The early albums were always solid, but never quite capturing the true essence of The Roots.
These early trials made The Roots into a darling of the hip-hop community. The little band that could. An act that should have been selling alongside their mainstream compatriots. Beginning with 1999′s Things Fall Apart, every new Roots record was supposed to be the record that broke them out, the album with the radio single that would put them over, would be their tipping point. Their album titles throughout the 2000s reflected the band’s awareness of these expectations, and with every release, those expectations went unmet, and a little more air seemed to leave The Roots’ sails.
Then a strange thing happened.:The Roots became Jimmy Fallon’s house band. Then an even stranger thing happened: Jimmy Fallon’s show was really great. So great, in fact, that he became the host of The Tonight Show. He took The Roots with him. When they took the initial gig, I shook my head and resigned myself to the death of The Roots. How could they continue tour while filming a TV show five days a week? Interviews with band members around that time made them sound resigned to their failure to crack the mainstream. I figured their career was going to enter a new, lame, kind of sad stage.
I was wrong. Being Jimmy Fallon’s house band on The Tonight Show has freed The Roots to make really solid albums. …And then you shoot your cousin has no chart topping aspirations. It contains no true radio singles. It is not attempting to introduce The Roots to fans who might not yet have heard their music. Rather, …And then you shoot your cousin sounds like exactly the kind of album The Roots have always wanted to make, an album with dense lyrics, a positive message and beautiful, accomplished musicianship.
No longer saddled with expectations of breaking onto rap radio, The Roots have crafted a record few other hip-hop acts could attempt. The track “Tomorrow” features no rapping. “The Unraveling” features a piano-heavy intro for more than a minute before the song even begins. These are not club bangers. These are not billboard hits. The songs on …And then you shoot your cousin are so much more. They are tiny works of artistry and craftsmanship, the diamonds forged from two decades of grinding for a band just trying to find where they fit into their genre’s landscape.
In the end, it is fitting that The Roots forged their own path to success. The fact that they never fully sold out for album sales lends the band a credibility very few hip-hop acts can claim. They have achieved a sort of godfather status, and an album like …And then you shoot your cousin proves that they were always right to do it their way. Here’s hoping they continue to give us albums full of soulful soul grooves the likes of …And then you shoot your cousin for many years to come.