A dark concept from The Roots

You can watch the greatest band in hip-hop five nights a week on the set of “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.” Since accepting the job in 2009, The Roots haven’t slowed down at all, continuing to release their own music and collaborate with high profile artists.

2010 brought the critically acclaimed “How I Got Over” followed by a great album with John Legend called “Wake Up!” The following year the band released their first concept album, “Undun,” considered by many to be their best work to date. Now, three years later, The Roots is back with another concept album called ” … And Then You Shoot Your Cousin.”

While “Undun” focused on the life of one character, this record aims for a larger view, explained by rapper Black Thought in an interview with XXL: “It’s another concept album in the spirit of ‘Undun’, but it’s not just about just one kind of character, we create quite a few different characters in this record. It’s satire, but in that satire it’s an analysis of some of the stereotypes perpetuated in not only the hip-hop community, but in the community.”

The themes are dark, and there is a lot of overlap between what the characters are going through. Struggling, stuck and grappling with spirituality in a place that feels like damnation, the lyrics expose the character’s sins and vices. Surrounded by death, drugs and temptation, it seems everyone wants to find a way to a better tomorrow, but isn’t sure it exists.

The delivery of these themes always has been a strength of The Roots, as one of the only hip-hop bands whose members are proficient musicians in a genre dominated by samples and electronics.

Here, as well as on “Undun,” The Roots is embracing jazz and classical sounds and composition techniques, augmenting a unique take on classic hip-hop grooves. “The Dark (Trinity)” is a good example of this, featuring a familiar beat over chords that are much denser than we are used to hearing on hip-hop albums.

The group’s primary rapper, Black Thought, navigates these challenging song structures expertly. His rhythms feel like natural extensions of what the band is doing, and his voice is more raw than ever.

Despite all its positives, ” … And Then You Shoot Your Cousin” doesn’t quite achieve greatness. At just over 30 minutes, it’s a very short album, especially considering that two of the tracks are samples, and one is an experimental noise piece.

Most of the hooks just aren’t as memorable as in their previous albums, and a few of the tracks feel a little stuck in place. Regardless, this is another great addition to The Roots’ discography, and solidifies the group’s place in the forefront of modern hip-hop.

4 stars out of 5.

DOWNLOAD NOW: “Understand”