The hip hop veterans prove they can tell a captivating story on their latest studio LP.
Marcus J. Moore 2011
To grow up in an urban landscape is to struggle with perseverance and survival, a regular cat-and-mouse game in which the winners find ways to navigate the desperate metropolis and the unlucky fall victim to life’s tempting seductions. It’s a dangerous battle boasting certain success stories and weighted with unfortunate casualties. There’s the young man with an uncanny skill, whose divine ability lifts him from the despair; there, another young person seemingly content with the street game, for whatever reason. Then there’s the enigmatic figure stuck somewhere in-between, a conflicted soul with the inkling to play it straight, yet he chooses a life of fast money and crime, cutting his life terribly short in the process.
On The Roots’ new album, undun, the Philadelphia octet tells the story of that character, depicting the demise of semi-fictional character Redford Stephens through a series of sparse soul melodies, thoughtful string arrangements and stomping hip hop grit. Here, The Roots tell the story backwards, beginning with Redford’s death and backpedalling through the circumstances that ordered his steps. The result is a remarkable display of creative unity and a stellar masterpiece sitting alongside the group’s best work. While undun continues The Roots’ recent trend of dark recordings, it does so with a comprehensive flair that caters to listeners old and new, nodding to the despondent vibe of 2006’s Game Theory while flashing optimistic glimpses of light, similar to 2010’s How I Got Over.
And while the drums bang with intense ferocity, the words take centre stage on undun, as Black Thought and a host of others — including frequent collaborator Dice Raw, and Phonte of The Foreign Exchange — wield rhymes that embody Redford’s restless spirit, establishing an aggressive tone along the way. "With undun, we hoped to give voice to an imagined internal dialogue that could take place as a deceased black youth looks forward into our post-modern void," Roots bandleader Ahmir ‘?uestlove’ Thompson wrote in a recent blog entry on The Huffington Post. To that end, the group hits the mark. I Remember finds Thought discussing calmer times, even if the character’s current lifestyle has washed away his memories. Sleep, with its scant percussion and trunk-rattling bass, feels like a sobering funeral song with Redford speaking from the grave. "There I go, from a man to a memory / I wonder if my fam will remember me," Thought rhymes.
Eventually, undun transitions from hip hop to avant-garde fare, turning the album on its ear with a short instrumental collage of cascading piano keys and classical compositions. Multi-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens repurposes his own song, Redford, for the first interpretation of undun’s four-part closer. Will to Power finds ?uestlove and pianist D.D. Jackson playing musical tug-of-war over a frenetic jazz breakdown similar to Water, from The Roots’ Phrenology album of 2002. All told, undun stands firm as a moving eulogy, full of life in its own murky way and amazingly cohesive in its approach. While the album’s main character lived only 25 years, the music here has the vitality to live much longer.