It was easy to objectify things like rage and disaffection during George Bush Junior’s eight wild years in the White House. Right-minded people weren’t disillusioned with George Bush; his two terms in office were so conspicuously backwards and reactionary that it made it quite natural to be fiercely involved. Things are far more obscure and disjointed in Obama’s America. Now that the big party’s over, his tenure has since been one long, deep and sustained hangover, the gutters strewn with a mass of red cups, dirty blue ticker tape and crumpled up “Hope” flyers. ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, The Roots’ eleventh studio album, is a product of this severe and prolonged comedown.
It’s an album about ennui, vice, disorientation and urban decay. These are not new themes for The Roots – but that’s precisely the point: not much has actually changed. Something went horribly wrong a long time ago. Whilst it might not be their most accomplished (that’s still Things Fall Apart), it’s certainly their most dark, depressing and cynical album to date - which also makes it their most pertinent. Set out across multiple, practically interchangeable narratives, it breeds a nightmarish, universal sense of collapse and fracture, passivity and alienation that’s become so ubiquitous that, seen through normal eyes at least, it’s almost unidentifiable: ‘The law of gravity meets, the law of averages’, as Black Thought puts it on the track “The Dark (Trinity)”. We’re not wrestling with demons anymore, we’ve assimilated the old ones and create new ones every day.
Paralysis is the central, reoccurring theme in ATYSYC. The characters in this web of liquor sodden narratives paw frivolously at false remedies and bow down before unresponsive gods. Nothing works. The old psychic anchors – church, family, flag - have crumbled away to expose a deep abyss at the very heart of the American super structure. The violence, futility, paranoia and claustrophobia in this album runs deep, especially in the track “Black Rock”. The vocals practically break out into a wail and the backing piano clangs dissonantly as if it’s being played with stumps rather than fingers. It’s all cut and pasted together scrappily into an amorphous Cubist nightmare, over lyrics that are completely fatalistic. But they’re not lamentations; they’re delivered with absolute stoicism and conviction: “The only thing in front of me is a bullet in the head”, raps Dice Raw. There’s no progress or fluidity in this America; each day thuds by with the mechanised persistence of a casino fruit machine: cheeseburger, 40 ounce and a cloud of weed smoke, “same as yesterday”. But it’s not all gritty social realism. The album’s splintered violently down the middle by a burst of distorted static, radio interference and a muzzled chorus of hellish cries in the track “Dies Irae” (Day of Wrath), like high powered flashes of The Rapture, parting the clouds, and bolting down through the ashy grey ether over the Philadelphia skyline. It’s the most important track on the album, because it’s the only one that dares to glimpse at our mental future.
Dark as it is, this is also an absurd album, too. Not all of it sounds like a string quartet pulling itself apart, or a piano chewing up its own keys. Polished, radio friendly pop hooks snag on the acute, serrated edges of Black Thought’s gloomy verses. But it’s as if these bizarre tonal inconsistencies and incongruities are set up to parody the deep American daydream, trying desperately to drown out the terrified screams of the collective unconscious. There’s something seriously jarring about hearing Modesty Lycan signing about smoking crack cocaine on the fluffy childish hook of “When the People Cheer”. And, the final track, “Tomorrow”, an upbeat soul ballad in which Raheem DeVaughn sings, “I’m thankful to be alive/’Cause you sleep from 11 to 7/And work hard from 9 to 5”, sounds so out of place inthe context of the album it’s unsettling. But that’s the point - in the previous track DeVaughn chants feverishly about the total absence of a future. It’s as if our character has just necked the entire tub of oxycotton and thrown back the last of the bourbon from the bottle, before peeling off gently, red-eyed and anesthetised, like a helium balloon into the night.
In truth, the future isn’t promising at all; in fact, even the present has lost its shaping telos; it’s psychosocial chaos - just well packaged. In “The Dark (Trinity)”, Black Though raps, “No idea how much time’s left, fuck trying to cherish it/A life in times unchecked, now that’s American”. The Dream doesn’t light the end of the tunnel anymore - not down on the corners of North Philadelphia, at least. As Black Thought puts it: “I’m stuck here, can’t take a vacation/So fuck it, this shit is damnation”. But ATYSYC isn’t reducible to one single sociological case study; it deals with a sense of spiritual stagnation that transcends class or locality - it’s far more pervasive than that. If anything, the type of primitive self-destruction in this album speaks just as much to the hermetically sealed world of the suburban middle class – clawing on the walls of their cells without really knowing why and not bothering to ask. Nobody is winning, but nobody cares, as Lycan sings on the hook of “When the People Cheer”. America might well be teetering on the brink of socio-cultural oblivion; that’s a given, we all are. What’s weirder, and what this album seems to be saying, is that we might not even notice, or care, when it actually happens.