The Roots have spent their 20-year career constantly reinventing their sound, all the while sticking to a formula that is strictly hip-hop, and them doing so, with so many accolades and so few missteps is a testament to their legacy as the most consistent hip-hop band around. Since joining the cast of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon
in 2009, they have been able to take some time off the constant touring they once were known for, which has enabled them to pursue broader artistic goals by taking more time in the making of their albums.
This is what they try to achieve with undun
, the group's first concept album. undun
tells the story of fictional Philadelphian character Redford Stephens, a mish-mash of several persons The Roots have met over the years. The catch here is that the story is told in reverse order : the album kicks off with the detailing of the character's death, and then proceeds to rewind his life back to his birth. This is far from being the most ambitious concept ever for an album, but it certainly isn't a flaw as it gives the band some liberty in choosing how they want undun
to sound and what the subject matter will be, as opposed to a more ambitious concept which might have drowned the music in itself.
With such a concept, there is one question that the listener wants answered when spinning the album for the first time : is it cohesive enough so that it feels like all the songs work together in achieving the album's main purpose ? The answer to this is a resounding 'yes', as undun
is quite simply the most well-put together Roots album to date. Clocking at just under 40 minutes, undun
is an astounding success in every manner. Each aspect of the life of Redford Stephens is touched upon, and you can feel how he has changed through the years, what he has gone through, and why he has failed at making something out of his life. The last 4 tracks are a testament to the fact that The Roots, producer/drummer ?uestlove in particular, have put much thought in the making of undun
: these tracks are all relaxing slow-paced instrumentals, which we can guess are a way of representing the early life of Redford Stephens, of which he couldn't possibly have any memory that could be put in words, thus the use of intrumentals to give a sense of the muffled senses that prevail through early life. The album flows perfectly, and it is impossible for me to fanthom not listening to the album from start to finish. It builds up for the first couple of tracks, then spins in full force as we get to the heart of Redford's life (Stomp serving as the high point in terms of agressivity and hard-hitting drums), and then all becomes calm as he becomes a baby again, and throughout all this perfect execution is maintained. All the tracks ultimately feel linked to the ones following and preceding them, which is all one can ask for given the album's theme.
As far as the music in itself, the overall sound of undun
is a continuation of what the band did with last year's How I Got Over : hip-hop songs that flirt with Alt Rock and Indie sounds, with frequent use of strings, piano loops, and even an electric guitar on Stomp. This laid back sound molds a great sonic background for the story being told, and makes for a very relaxing but never boring sound, easy enough on the ears for casual listening and complex enough for repeated and more profound listens. The rapping is as exceptionnal as the other components on undun
, and what is especially mind-boggling is how they manage to implement the guest verses : "Make My"'s beat seems perfectly suited for Big K.R.I.T.'s flow and voice, as does "One Time"'s beat for Phonte's. The rhyme schemes used by Black Thought sometimes feel overused, and his flow is very similar to what was heard in How I Got Over
, which is to be expected for an MC with such a long career. However, the album's length and the frequent use of guest rappers (which all perform very well on here) prevents this from becoming problematic, and won't even be noticed by those who aren't that familiar with The Roots' catalogue. All in all, Black Thought's rhymes are still sharply-written, and confirm his spot as one of the game's top lyricist. The lyrics and the way they are delivered are chilling, with the subject matter ranging from nihilistic drug talk to hope, dreams, and despair, all offering snapshots of what was going through Redford's life at a particular moment.
is a crowning achievement for one of Hip-Hop's most revered bands, one that adds to a legacy that is already fantastic, and shows that after 13 albums, The Roots are still on top. It is rare for a Hip-Hop album to be so focused, so tightly-recorded that it doesn't feel at all like a collection of songs, but as a continuous story held by beautiful and inspiring beats. undun
achieves all that, and in turn it is one of The Roots' most compelling albums, and can without a doubt stand tall amongst their greatest albums, which is a strong statement given the band's history of delivering top-notch material throughout the years.