Yo, first things first – if this album is your introduction to The Roots, you’re doing it wrong. Undun is The Roots’ tenth studio album, their ninth if you don’t count their ‘demo project’ Organix (1993), and eleventh if you count the collaboration with John Legend last year (Wake Up!). The point being, the band has been in the game for a long time, and throughout their long discography have changed their sound to maintain a much-appreciated freshness. Last year, The Roots were met with the question of being too old for Hip-Hop, to which group leaders ?uestlove and Black Thought repeatedly answered (and I’m paraphrasing here), ‘Becoming 40-year old artists, it’s important to come with music from a different perspective than we did 15 years ago.’
Undun is The Roots’ latest project, and it is a concept album. It tells the tale of Redford Stephens, a fictional young adult who is plagued by crime and tragedy growing up in a dangerous and hopeless environment that, in turn, represents our society today. All in reverse narrative. Even if you are a seasoned Roots veteran, Undun will challenge you, or any listener. Every line is a clue, every song is a story; each are all pieces to the young Stephens’ tragic life.
After the long hospital beeping indicating death in the appropriately titled, “Dun,” we are thrown into the eerie singing of Aaron Livingston (seriously, dude sounds like he’s straight out the Addams Family) and “Sleep.” “All that I am, all that I was, is history” and “Oh there I go,/ From a man to a memory” rapped by Black Thought help insinuate that Mr. Stephens has passed away, and is looking back on his almost seemingly pre-determined fate; “Like when autumn leaves fall down from the trees.”
The tone is instantly set here, largely due to “Sleep’s” excellent, creepy production, and leads the listener to the album’s first single, “Make My.” The best song on the album, the lyrics and single artwork both would suggest that Redford has been shot and is dying. Guest Big K.R.I.T. really shines here; his bass-filled Southern drawl finds a perfect pocket to fit in between Questo’s reflective drum work. The breakdown at the last minute-and-a-half oozes of soul with pumping synthesizer sounds and steady, but lively, snares.
Keeping the stellar guest features going, Phonte puts on his mean face in “One Time,” rapping “If you ever see me out in ya’ll streets/ Find another one to occupy” and Black Thought follows in line with “You say goodbye, I say hello/ First and last, hello-hello/ Now all of y’all elevate your glass.” The brashness of the record implies that Stevens has committed a crime, and the champagne-esque sounding “Kool On” shows Redford living the high-life of a gangster. The riffs and wailing sample in the backdrop proves a perfect canvas for Thought to flex his vocals: “The minute before the storm hit/ Is what I’m calm like/ Suited and booted for a shooting/ Like its prom night.”
Lyrics reign supreme on this album, and from the somber “The Otherside” (“Playing with the fire/ That burned my boy”), to the aggressive “Stomp” (“The wheels spin/ I’m looking for a sacrificial lamb”), and the introspective “I Remember” (“I’m looking back/ And y’all look the same/ Troy, Mark, and little/ What’s-his-name”), every line has a purpose. Everything is done for a reason on a Roots album. To avoid this being a spoiler, I will not delve into each and every song and dissect. Every track has its own message and paints its own picture to the story of Redford Stephens – all open to interpretation. That’s what makes Undun so damn intriguing. It’s like a bad-*ss jigsaw puzzle. What a line and, thus, a song represent can differ from opinion to opinion, and that’s okay. Above all, it’s all about how it sounds, and that’s the other half of the fun.
The Roots have never made a bad album, and this isn’t the first. Being Jimmy Fallon’s house band has been glorified practice for the group, and the instrumentation is sharper than ever here. It’s going to take some time, dedication, and lyric looking-up to fully understand the LP. The more you listen, the more you love. The last four songs (“Redford” to “Finality”) are all instrumental, each shorter than two minutes, surely pushing Hip-Hop fans to the edge. The album is gloomy and at times confusing, and the concept does limit The Roots from being the bouncy, jam session band we love. But this may be the deepest project The Roots have ever made. And that’s saying something.