Though their albums have always been cohesive and gravitated more and more to singular ideas over the years The Roots deliver their first concept album with ‘undun.’ The album chronicles the life of Redford Stephens, a fictional character who symbolizes any regular joe off to a false start in life, eventually finding himself unable to escape the tendrils of the hood and becomes undone. And it does so in reverse. Doesn’t sound easy to pull off, does it? But if any band in rap can do it, it’s Illadelph’s finest, The Roots. The BT goes on a sonic journey to found out if they do.
Smart. Challenging. Quality. Hip-Hop. Those are the main four terms I used to describe undun, one of the few albums I truly loved that dropped in 2011. It’s hard to judge every album against masterpieces from the past, or give something the term “classic” too early into its release, but fuck, for a group like The Roots, who are considered by many to be “Hip-Hop’s Band”, being the musical accompaniment for Jimmy Fallon, to have so many accolades – and still be slept on? undun should be the album that further solidifies their place within the game. Beautiful, thought-provoking music, with a cohesive story weaved in Tarantino fashion? I love an album that goes there, and keeps it in unison. Goblin was close, with the narrative weaved throughout, but nothing is touching undun in that vein at all. Don’t even skip tracks. Go from front to back, let the story soak in, then replay it. Fuck it. Classic.
The Roots’ new album is a journey, both musical and lyrical, that straps you in and demands front to back listening. On the group’s first thematically focused effort, Black Thought’s poetry is masterful and the band’s prowess stands up to any live performance group of our time. The unfortunate hang-up of the band’s consistency is the tendency of the listeners to be lulled into a yawning expectation of uncelebrated greatness, but undun’s complexity shocks the senses to attention. On their 13th go-round, Jimmy Fallon’s house band flexes the muscles that have made them one of the most venerated Hip-Hop acts of all time. ?uestlove’s lordship and finesse of arrangement as a backdrop for Tariq the wordsmith is a skilled tightrope walk that balances soulful melodies with pointed tales of the grimy nature of urban lower living. Songs like Sleep, Stomp, and Tip the Scale are the stuff that an album of the year is made of.
Barring the four (useless) instrumental tracks at the end of the album, undun clocks in at around thirty-three minutes long (thirty-one, not including the also-useless intro, “Dun”). In this post-record/post-cassette age we’re living in, that’s simply an obscenity. On the most recent Juan Epstein podcast, ?uestlove explicitly took pride in the album’s brevity. I don’t understand that at all. Whatever. On to the music. To be sure, this album’s definitely got some gems that’ll be floating around in my heavy rotation for a while. But it’s also stricken with some lukewarm joints which, given the album’s short tracking time, stifle the listening experience. Take “I Remember” for instance. Sonically, like just about all tracks on the album, it’s nothing if not stellar. But that chorus? “I remember/ Can you remember?/ How it was, I do/ Remember, do you?/” What is this bland, slap-happy sappiness © DOOM? As soon as undun seems to be getting somewhere, it either switches gears or… ends! If, instead, undun was a steady string of ten to twelve “Make My” and “Kool On”-ish tracks, I’d be a happy camper. But, alas, it’s not. Nonetheless, it’s tough to knock what The Roots are striving for on a creative level. They’ve cranked out some gorgeous tracks on this album, that’s undeniable. But the project as a whole feels a bit stunted and incomplete. Or is the word I’m looking for “undone”? That must be it.
Listening to ‘undun’ is akin to looking at Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica;’ It’s a masterful artwork depicting a tragedy that you have to take some distance from to fully appreciate. It’s subdued colours can easily envelop you in sadness, and while your mood may turn melancholic you can’t help but marvel at the work. The album starts off with a flatline but never becomes as literal during its runtime again, and pinning down the narrative of The Roots’ opus isn’t as easy as you might’ve expected. The sequencing of tracks suggests certain scenes and while the lyrics all crisply describe the emotions and atmosphere attached to them, the actual storyline is left for the listener to pick up. This demands an active listening experience and when after multiple listens you’ve seen the whole thing from a distance you start to pick up on the key scenes and see the tale develop. It’s a sombre but ultimately rewarding experience when the full scope of ‘undun’ is revealed in all its gruesome inevitability. At least I think it is, I’m still not entirely sure what’s going on with that Spanish bull’s head hovering over the shrieking woman on the left.
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