Halfway through the Roots’ …and then you shoot your cousin, Black Thought raps spirited verses about reckoning with death: “I let the devil in the dance, an electric slide across the line I drew up in the sand.” Then his words fade into “Dies Ires,” a sample from French experimental composer Michel Chion’s “Requiem,” and the arrhythmic silence between each glitching jolt is frightening.
Many rappers have contemplated their mortality, and for their latest album the Roots rely familiar sounds, from vintage soul samples to a well-known cast of collaborators. “Black Rock” features Dice Raw playing the apathetic street-corner dealer, the clanging blues-rock sample punctuating his humdrum transactions: a 40-ounce for breakfast, a quarter ounce sold. But the album finds new ways to make genre’s dances with the devil feel unsettling as opposed to well-worn. On “The Coming,” Mercedes Martinez of Philly neosoul duo Jazzyfatnastees quivers as she delivers news of people screaming, like a shaken town crier. Her words bleed into the dirge-like “The Dark (Trinity),” making even Black Thought’s rote-sounding inventory count — “Hashtag, diamond dog tag, money bag, nice swag, pockets need an ice bag, tote tag, body bag” — sound bleak.
Soul-jazz closer “Tomorrow” can feel like salvation in comparison; while its carefree whistles and plucky piano are certainly cheery, Raheem DuVaughn’s prayer is most comforting. “Send a message to God from heaven: I’m thankful to be alive / ‘Cause you sleep from 11 to 7, and work hard from 9 to 5,” he sings. The moment of relative peace arrives after a frantic piano coda from jazz pianist D.D. Jackson, and it feels too short to salve the album’s frayed nerves. Violence is the album’s main attraction, as it often is in hip-hop at large. That’s the brutal point.