Photos by Mel D. Cole for Villageslum and Okayplayer.
The Roots gave the digital world its first listen to their new album …and then you shoot your cousin Tuesday via an online stream. That night (and again last night) the band–in slightly mutated form–took the stage at New York’s Public Theater to present it live–or rather to wrestle with the longplayer’s dark themes in a live setting. The result–equal parts deconstruction of the record as it is recorded and live elements comprising dance, poetry, DJing, performance art, piano, strings, beatbox, guitar and MPC b!*ch-slapping–is better described as a brilliant if unsettling post-modern cabaret than a ‘concert’ (let alone ‘listening session’).
Even a casual listen to &TYSYC reveals that it is taking aim at some pretty cosmic targets; god, the devil, nothingness–not to mention the rot of the American Dream radically deferred. Those demons–often heard whispering off just stage left on the album–were summoned up in sometimes terrifying form directly in front of the audience at The Public. Since the intent of these performances was clearly to create a singular event (double-ular, in this case) to stand in parallel to the reproducible art of the album, it seemed more appropriate to record the moment in impressionistic fashion than to attempt a conventional interpretation or ‘review’. Accordingly what follows is a play by play of what hit Tuesday night’s audience in the earhole, the retina and frequently the gut–with some visual aid supplied in the form of Mel D. Cole‘s photos.
With the lights down, the only thing clearly visible are the glowing drum pads of an MPC, dully illuminating the empty seats of a traditional string section next to it. These are both on a lower level; on a raised dais behind are turntables and a drum kit. Black Thought, hooded, steps up to the mic. In an uncharacteristically slow, spoken word cadence he rails against “the white bone of sky…” describing a boy who is “both usual and suspect, probable and caused.” Another phrase jumps out: “We can take over but not overcome.” With that word “overcome”–so redolent of uplifting spirituals –it occurs to me for the first time that …and then you shoot your cousin is not so much about how “Hip-Hop Failed Black America,” as Questlove has been detailing in his Vulture essay series. It is about a much deeper failure, in human terms; the implosion of the Civil Rights movement’s upward motion, the anger at hip-hop moreso because it is in some sense the soundtrack for the debasement of those ideals.
We leave with a plodding bass march; oboe, reeds—Ellington?–that never resolves into a hummable melody but to my ear strongly suggests the mood and chords of “Strange Fruit.” Another stray thought: with its dissonance, blasphemous god-talk and bloody leaves, &TYSYC could be seen as a weird companion piece to Yeezus. A rising airplane rumble lifts us out and becomes a throbbing migraine beat. Pulsing lights reveal for the first time the ominous tangle of nooses hanging from above the stage. ‘Tangle’ does not do the image proper injustice, though. If you can have a murder of crows, what is the correct collective noun for these executioner’s ropes? A gang of nooses, a preponderance of nooses. A thicket, a strange grove to match the bitter fruit. Or–remembering the name on the bill–maybe they are the roots of a tree above us, not so subtly letting us know we are now in the underworld.
Questlove is at the decks now and as the lights strobe a massive avalanche of balloon animals suddenly falls on the stage, a Jeff Koons flood of meaningless forms, falling in the framedrop slo-mo created by the flash of the strobe. A doo-ragged character enters the stage, humming, holding a gigantic red balloon like a kite. There’s something clownish in his dancerly movements, he has his mouth absurdly open, recalling at once a mime, Flavor Flav in wop-mode, the broom-wielding enforcer of the Apollo as he sweeps balloons away in the wake of his feet. In silence his dance picks up in intensity and his movements resemble Flav less than legendary b-boy choreographer Pee Wee Danz. As he steps and swims through balloons, the pop of dying inflatables echo like gunshots. We are fully in Fluxus territory now, improvisation colliding with a wickeder kind of randomness to create an ‘anything could happen’ tension in the room.