The Roots: undun
As a collection of songs, a hip-hop album, undun offers an intensity unseen since 2002’s Phrenology. While the Roots are always intense, on undun they offer what could only be described as a more purposeful intensity. Black Thought’s lyrical delivery has never been more like Black Thought’s lyrical delivery: desperate, raw, and hustling. As usual, ?uestlove leads the way, providing the musical direction, under which the band gets a little quieter, and much more focused, than they have ever been before. Perhaps it is this focus that keeps the album from achieving what could be its full potential.
To date, the Roots have largely been the all-the-way live oasis in a desert of sample-driven Hip-Hop, refusing to limit themselves to the confines of a loop, stretching out. Though still livelier than most on undun, that characteristic liveliness is hindered by the purposeful precision with which it has been tasked. The trademark Roots sound is here, but it’s been put on a leash in service to the message of the album and its melancholy tone. The Roots are at their best when the music can breathe and expand as needed. “Cadillac need space to roam,” as Black Thought put it on Phrenology.
In the quest for pop music immortality, a well-executed concept album makes a strong case for eternal greatness. As a concept album, undun, initially at least, seems like it will find a lasting spot in the oeuvre that boasts such great entries as The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and The Beatles‘ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The world of undun is fully realized, without being mired in ghetto clichés.
The story of Redford Stevens, an urban youth who succumbs to the danger of the streets, the album begins at the end, with Stevens’ death. Over the course of the album, in a Memento-style reverse narrative that is none too direct, the listener is shown that the path of Stevens’, which culminated in such tragedy. The choices Stevens – portrayed by Black Thought – makes seem all too necessary when placed in the context of urban survival. While alluded to, the story is not told in a straightforward manner. There is a nine minute short film meant to accompany the album available online, but even that is somewhat obtuse. This is rightly so, since the album deals with problems that have yet to be solved. This may also be the reason for the albums quieter, more pensive tone. Ultimately, given the somber subject matter, the decision to tone things down seems like the only proper way to pay tribute to those whom Redford Stevens is meant to represent.
Rating: 8.5/10 (As a Roots album) 9/10 (as a concept album)
MP3: The Roots featuring Big K.R.I.T. and Dice Raw “Make My”
Buy: iTunes or Insound!
The Roots: undun