The Roots: undun Review (Four Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are Four reactions, Four impressions, Four Takes on undun by The Roots.
Michael Herriges (Midwest Broadcast)
Undun is a heavy album. If you’re not familiar with the concept already, it tells the story of the undoing of a semi-fictional drug dealer named Redford Stephens in reverse, starting with his death and progressing through everything that lead up to it. It seems to be an album that you love or think is just okay. I love it.
The reason I love it is because it’s the most meticulously crafted rap album released in years. It’s incredibly down-tempo for a rap album. The grooves unwind slowly, matching the narrative at hand. The instrumental codas come off as a little self-indulgent. After becoming familiar with the album, I found myself skipping them.
That leaves the listener with about 32 minutes worth of rap. And not a minute is wasted. Black Thought’s lyrical attention to detail is exceptional. Dice Raw contributes a few excellent guest verses and choruses. Phonte’s tough talking verse on “One Time” is chock full of clever punch lines, but still contributes to character development. Big K.R.I.T.’s verse on “Make My” is a fantastic self-reflection from the eyes of the dying protagonist.
What I’m getting at is that rarely is a musical or lyrical moment wasted on Undun. ?uestlove and the Roots were able to trim all excess fat and make a concept album that’s meant to be digested in one whole, brief listen. The band is still taking risks, pushing themselves musically, and broadening the notions of what hip-hop can do and say. And they’re doing this 13 albums into their career. Few bands ever have remained as consistently excellent as The Roots. Undun is yet another crowning achievement in their long career.
You can call it a comeback, return to form, or whatever, but the latest LP undun by the Roots is a crystal clear example of how the group still has it and why they are one of the best bands in music (rap or otherwise) right now. The 14 tracks on undun are heartfelt, polished, challenging, and, even though it is a heavy concept album about the crack game and the toll it takes, a record that ultimately is really fun to listen to. Ranging from the absolute show stoppers “Make My” and “One Time” to the lush closing sequence featuring the arrangements of Sufjan Stevens, the record is as commanding and well thought out as any record I heard over the past year. The story works its way backwards from the death of the protagonist to his birth, showing how easy it is to get lost in the game when you live in a society that doesn’t offer you very many choices. For the band to have made—and pulled off—a concept album of any depth, while still making it one of the most musically rewarding records of the year, shows the amazing talent of Black Thought, Questlove, and the crew.
Listening to Undun, the newest and 13th album from The Roots, one picks up on an uneasy attitude. While it is a concept album that revolves around the main character, Redford, and his untimely demise, it is clear that The Roots continue to up the ante creatively, leaving no detail unsaid. Black Thought returns with an unsettling yet awesome performance as the main character, while other folks such as Dice Raw, Big K.R.I.T., Phonte, Greg Porn, and Truck North spread themselves as other characters within Redford’s forever unfolding manifesto, especially on such tracks as the stark “The OtherSide” and the blood-curdling-eeriness that is “Make My.” That’s not even mentioning that the virtuosic tail end of the record (comprised of four movements), which has Sufjan Stevens reprising a song from his Greetings From Michigan record. The Roots continue their awesome streak with Undun, which goes down as what a great concept record should sound like.
Jon Jon Scott (Sound Verite)
With the Roots, feelings run deep. They are the talented “rap-band” that is different and alternative. They’re always dependable and reliable; sometimes arty, other times jammy, just fine enough with each jump. One always wants more, hoping for the best Roots record ever with each release, which usually leaves you still wanting something new, something even more special. On undun they deliver—although it is short at 38 minutes, including the closing quartet of instrumentals.
On the hypnotic “Sleep,” the vocals “I’ve lost a lot of sleep to dreams” begins with Black Thought: “To catch a thief, who stole the soul I prayed to keep, insomniac, bad dreams got me losing sleep.” He continues, “The music played on, and told me I was meant to be awake, It’s unresolved like everything I had at stake, illegal activity controls my black symphony, orchestrated like it happened incidentally.” “Make My” features the red-hot southern rapper Big K.R.I.T.. K.R.I.T. is cool, but he ain’t saying nothing that we couldn’t hear from Black Thought. “Make My’s” mid-tempo vibe is a perfect canvas for Black Thought as he ponders if there’s such a thing as heaven. “The spirit in the sky scream homicide” opens “One Time,” with assistance from Phonte (Little Brother) and Dice Raw.
On the heavy hitter “Stomp,” ace produced by Just Blaze, The Roots find the right board dude who delivers a banger as Black Thought asks “What is it back to the essence of? Greatness, I wasn’t in the presence of” shows Black Thought in a Charlie Mingus mood, “Speaking of pieces of a man, Staring at a future in the creases of my hand, It reads like a final letter I’m leaving for my fam but, It’s written in language they will never understand.” The sterling pianos of “The OtherSide” are anchored by a beautiful melody and soul-crooner Bilal. “Listen if it not for these hood inventions, I’d just be another kid from the block with no intentions” rhymes Black Thought, as if to ask what’s the point of it all. The eighties pop stylings of “Lighthouse” shows a lighter moment, as do the smooth post neo-soul R&B of “I Remember” and the mournful ballad “Tip The Scale”.
This, their 13th record, adds up to a “concept” album of a young, lost-too-soon black male. Staying in the same reality-based “dark” lane lyrically as the past three records, Game Theory, Rising Down, and How I Got Over, undun challenges with its brooding, surreal view of the current urban landscape. The exception with undun is that most of the vocals are by Black Thought—no big guest names, really—with assists coming primarily from their home team of Dice Raw, Greg Porn, and Truck North. There’s still the strong preference for Black Thought to carry the entire the narrative.
Musically, The Roots have arrived where folks have been expecting them to go. With the album’s driving arrangements and layered production, ?uestlove reaches for the grandiosity of Radiohead’s of Kid A with the execution of Mile Davis Kind Of Blue. He goes for epic-like space on the closing quartet of “Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou),” “Possibility,” “Will To Power,” and “Finality.” I love the fact that the whole record clocks in under 40 minutes; the only nag perhaps is the missing closing statement from Black Thought, which would have really finished the record in fantastic fashion. The ambition and reach of undun may be the The Roots strongest statement since 1999’s brilliant Things Fall Apart and hints of their 1996 masterpiece Illadelph Halflife.