The Roots Introduce New CD With an Art Happening: Concert Review

The Roots Performing - H 2014
Matthew Allen

The Roots Performing - H 2014

A listening party so inflated only a masterpiece of a record could possibly justify it.

The exclusive hip-hop event featured no live rapping and more prerecorded atmospherics than beats.

With their eleventh studio album, ...and then you shoot your cousin, due for release next week, The Roots are setting expectations that are high even by their standards. Drummer and co-founder Questlove, after all, is midway through publishing a six-part series in New York magazine entitled "How Hip-Hop Failed Black America" — a failure this record's promo material explicitly promises to tackle. No pressure, guys.

Tuesday's "exclusive performance art experience" at the Public Theater, then, was an occasion to address some of that treatise's questions. As the evening's program put it, "What is hip-hop, anyway? What does it sound like, and why?" The answer involved a didgeridoo, a small choir and string section, spoken-word and electric guitar, but no rap.

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In the Public's tiny Anspacher Theater, seats surrounded three sides of the stage. The four string players who filed in were at home beneath Romanesque columns dating back to the 19th century, but less accustomed to what soon dropped from them: Moments into the set, a deluge of colorful balloon animals fell, creating a thick blanket on the stage and eliciting sheepish smiles from the instrumentalists. A silent dancer (Jay Donn, from the recent doc Flex Is Kings) crept out from backstage, first dodging the balloons, but then running around popping them. What initially seemed festive became ominous as the set continued: Each time the MC Black Thought walked out — not to rap, but to read scraps of poetry that sometimes quoted Curtis Mayfield or Quincy Jones — the hoodie-clad black man was trailed by the pop-pop sound of gunshots. (Audience members watching the performance might not have noticed the scores of nooses overhead, bunched up together in the shadows under a dim red light.)

On a platform above the other musicians, Questlove spun records by Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone and others, most meshing well with the live orchestration. For the first half-hour, this moody mélange sounded like an ill-bent build-up to a dramatic live show. But when things finally turned to something listeners might identify as hip-hop, it was entirely prerecorded, new music alternating with old on the turntables.

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When Questlove finally scooted over to the drum kit about an hour in, it was for a frantic percussion/keyboard duet that quickly gave way to another stretch in which everyone on stage sat motionless to listen to another track from the album. Members of the audience stared at their laps, heads nodding appreciatively. Roots guitarist Kirk Douglas came in near the end to offer his take on Funkadelic's epic "Maggot Brain," looking more like a featured guest than part of the band.

Sometimes, the set played like a sequel to a Brooklyn Academy of Music event Questlove staged last September called "Electronium: The Future Was Then." There, a variety-show format didn't deliver satisfactorily on the promise to celebrate electronic-music pioneers; when electronica was showcased, it was mostly via showboating sampler/drum machine solos by Jeremy Ellis. Ellis was central here as well, and his splintery reworking of a James Brown sample was one of the evening's most lively moments.

This week's event, though occasionally perplexing, was more cohesive than "Electronium" — a carefully crafted coming-out party for an album clearly intended to be a major statement. Some attendees might have experienced cognitive dissonance after paying $200 (proceeds benefited the theater) to see a show whose program invoked the Occupy movement and lamented the failure of hyper-successful rap moguls to keep in touch with the disenfranchised populations that make them stars. But judging from the standing ovation, most were impressed with what they saw, whether they thought it reinvented hip-hop or not.