Undun marks the eleventh studio album from Philadelphia-based rap band The Roots (not counting live albums or EPs, but including the John Legend/Roots collaborative project Wake Up! in the fold). Which is a remarkable feat: there aren't many acts that are still a part of our chosen genre that make it to eleven officially released albums (because mixtapes, or "street albums", don't count). What makes this even more impressive is the fact that The Roots have never really been a mega-successful act: they have their core group of fans who rush out to buy everything they put their hands on (read: me), they have the critics in their pocket because they actually perform an incredible live show (unlike most rappers), and they have seamlessly transitioned from hip hop underdogs to taking the house band gig at NBC's Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, which undoubtedly has increased the size of their fanbase and helped make the marketing of Undun much easier for Def Jam's promotional team.
To celebrate this feat, The Roots have written and produced Undun, their first concept album, one that serves as "...an existential re-telling of the short life of one Redford Stephens (1974-1999). Through the use of emotives and Redford's eternal dialogues, the album seeks to illustrate the intersection of free will and prescribed destiny as it plays out 'on the corner'". I took that description of Undun's general storyline directly off of the sticker affixed to the plastic wrapping, since nowhere in the goddamn liner notes does it even mention that Undun is a concept album. I'm sure this is even more confusing for those of you who
steal buy your music digitally.
Undun is a dark project that follows Redford Stephens and his life, which he spends hustling on the streets until his demise, which isn't a spoiler, since the sticker on the wrapping gives away our lead character's year of death. ?uestlove and Black Thought lead their charges through a fourteen-track odyssey that follows Redford's life in reverse chronological order, beginning with his passing and working its way to a time when he was slightly happier. This is done using Thought's verses as the internal dialogue and multiple instrumental tracks which set the tone masterfully.
This would be quite ambitious for any musical genre, let alone one as simultaneously simplistic and convoluted as hip hop.
(Side note: I'm numbering the tracks in the numerical order they appear on the disc and not in the Roots Crew's usual fashion of labeling as a part of a bigger catalog, because (a) I feel like doing it this way, (b) this is how I've traditionally handled Roots gut reaction posts, and (c) I don't agree with one of the tracks on Undun being considered as a part of the Roots discography. I'll elaborate when I get to the track in question.)
As I'm sure you've seen reported elsewhere, Undun starts off with the sound of a heart monitor flatlining, and the music surrounding that effect grows a bit more uneasy as the intro moves along. This sounds confusing, but life is confusing, and I couldn't think of a better way for Redford's tale to begin. Believe me, I tried. Now would I ever feel the need to listen to "Dun" again? Never. That's just how it goes.
2. SLEEP (FEAT. AARON EARL LIVINGSTON)
The first song on Undun continues that unnerving trend, as Black Thought gives a one-verse dissertation on the mindstate of Redford Stephens while guest vocalist Aaron Livingston croons what serves as a chorus of sorts. Truth be told, I liked Livingston's line, "I've lost a lot of sleep to dreams" before Thought essentially recycled the same idea during his performance. But I liked the track overall: it sets the story in motion, and Tariq is as on point with his flow as ever. Dude even sounds tired and defeated behind the mic, hopefully on purpose.
3. MAKE MY (FEAT. BIG K.R.I.T. & DICE RAW)
This was the first track from Undun that leaked. The album version sounds a bit different than what I remember first hearing, but I'm probably just insane. The Roots gracefully hand off the first verse to guest star Big K.R.I.T., who impresses with his brief contribution that will probably endear him to the fans of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon who (a) are only familiar with the Roots Crew because of the show, and (b) haven't stopped watching after that stunt they pulled on Michele Bachman (which I thought was funny (and accurate), but whatever). Thought continues the reverse narrative, still sounding weary (nice touch with the consistency), while Dice Raw provides a decent (sung) hook. I liked how ?uestlove, Khari Mateen, and Ray Angry (who are all credited as producers) reserved the back half of "Make My" for a smooth instrumental that almost sounds...hopeful? No, that can't be right.
4. ONE TIME (FEAT. PHONTE, DICE RAW, & JAZZYFATNASTEES)
This shit was dope. I know that "One Time" is technically part of a concept album, but it could easily slide onto any other Roots project, which is a pretty high compliment coming from me. Over a fantastic Ritz and ?uestlove instrumental, Phonte (formerly of North Carolina crew Little Brother) takes the lead-off verse, dropping an Occupy Wall Street reference that proves he just recorded it within the past few weeks, but still sounds pretty good. Thought handles the midsection, and Dice Raw both raps (during the final stanza) and sings (on the hook), giving the audience an opportunity to decide which version of Bert Jenkins they prefer. For me, it's the rapper, although his singing voice has improved greatly. Anyway, this shit was nice.
5. KOOL ON (FEAT. GREG PORN & TRUCK NORTH)
I liked this track, but I can still like it and feel that ?uestlove's instrumental was kind of lazy, with looped soul vocals essentially becoming the beat. The verses were pretty good, though: Truck North, Thought, and the artist formerly known as P.O.R.N. (although who really thinks that 'Greg Porn' is better?) all unleashing some fucking ferocious verses. The overall theme of the Undun story remains on "Kool On", but you'll be forgiven if you've forgotten the overall existential themes of the record while listening to this track, thanks to the positive vibe that it attempts to give off. At least, that's what happened to me.
6. THE OTHERSIDE (FEAT. BILAL & GREG PORN)
I wasn't a fan of Bilal's chorus: it seemed a bit too cheesy for an album that is actually fairly dark. I can get with everything else, though: Black Thought picks the story back up for those of you actively paying attention to it, and Greg Porn (it's going to be pretty hard getting used to that name) closes things out on the rhyme side. The true star of "The OtherSide" is the instrumental, which is deceptively simple but keeps your head nodding...right up until the end, where everything slows to a crawl in the creepiest of ways. Not bad, but could have been better had they left Bilal on the cutting-room floor.
7. STOMP (FEAT. GREG PORN)
Early word on "Stomp" had placed producer Just Blaze both behind the boards and in a performance capacity, redoing the same vocal distortion trickery he first used on Jay-Z's "P.S.A." in order to make his voice sound like a sample from an old political speech. Well, everyone was wrong about the production part, at least: former Bad Bot Hitmen Sean C and LV actually handle the music, to which there isn't much to write about. (The jury's still out on the "sample", though, since the liner notes don't mention anything about source material or a guest appearance from Justin.) Both Thought and Gregory Porn (which sounds like a childrens book character from the UK) each spit a single verse. It's alright, but it isn't real enough to throw onto your Roots iTunes playlist.
8. LIGHTHOUSE (FEAT. DICE RAW & JAZZYFATNASTEES)
Swings the pendulum back in the right direction. Dice Raw and Black Thought trade off verses over a drum-heavy concoction that is as uplifting as it is depressing. Comes across more as a Dice Raw track featuring Tariq, but that's a minor quibble. Well, maybe not that minor, since Bert overpowers his host and manages to sound more impressive with both his verse and his two distinct choruses. Still, I liked this song quite a bit.
9. I REMEMBER (FEAT. JAZZYFATNASTEES)
I don't really seek out hip hop for its melancholy: if I'm feeling blue, I gravitate toward other sad bastard music. But I dug "I Remember". Black Thought finally appears on a song by himself again (the guest vocalists on the hook don't count for what I'm measuring right now), and he commits himself to Redford's tale over the course of multiple verses, but while he sounds good in doing so, I found his weary delivery a bit inappropriate, since this song appears near the end of the album, which is the beginning of Undun's story in the timeline, so now I think Black Thought has just gotten older, and hearing one of my favorite rappers sound like this makes me face my own mortality, which actually makes "I Remember" a lot deeper than it was originally intended.
10. TIP THE SCALE (FEAT. DICE RAW)
Black Thought-as-Redford attempts to think somewhat optimistically, which sounds strange on this project, considering how it originally started off. Unfortunately, I didn't care much for this song, so that's all I got.
The last four (instrumental) tracks on Undun constitute the "Redford Suite".
11. REDFORD (FOR YIA-YIA & PAPPOU) (PERFORMED BY SUFJAN STEVENS)
12. POSSIBILITY (2ND MOVEMENT)
13. WILL TO POWER (3RD MOVEMENT)
14. FINALITY (4TH MOVEMENT)
Undun concludes with a four-movement instrumental piece that reminded me of Phrenology's "Water" (especially during the third act, "Will To Power"), except without having the need to cope with former Roots member Malik B.'s drug abuse. The first component, the excellent "Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)" shouldn't ever really count as a Roots song, as it is both credited to and performed by Sufjan Stevens (and was lifted from his 2003 album Michigan), although it could be argued that his work is what inspired ?uestlove and company to write Undun in the first place, what with the main character's last name and all. What is impressive is how well it meshes with the other three original pieces: when listened to as a whole, it sounds as beautiful as it is tragic, as though the music is being filtered through the ghost of Redford Stephens himself. Which would scare the ever-loving shit out of me, since Redford Stephens is supposed to be a fucking fictional character. There aren't many rap albums that would have the balls to tie things up in this fashion, but then again, The Roots have never been what you would consider to be "average". And with that, we're out.
THE LAST WORD: Undun is relatively short, sweet, and to the point. The strokes painted by Black Thought, ?uestlove, and the rest of the Roots Crew are broad enough for listeners to enjoy the music without thinking too much about the underlying narrative, although that does exist for those of you who seek it out. Ultimately, I enjoyed most of Undun. There were a couple of tracks that I just didn't give a fuck about, and I even spun this entire album twice just to make sure, but most of Undun is really goddamn good. The Roots sidestep their typical need for scene-setting intros, spoken word poetry, and, as of late, political anger in favor of a cohesive storyline that pays tribute to the late Redford Stephens in such a fashion that you'll almost forget that he isn't real. Almost. Undun is worthy of picking up. It isn't perfect, and you probably won't sit through the entire project more than just the once, but the music itself marks a new-found maturity for a rap band who never had a problem with deviating from the norm. Besides, that price in the Amazon link below is fucking amazing. You two better jump on that before it goes away.