Review Summary: The Roots' darkest album emerges as a contender for hip-hop of the year.
Although they more recently have achieved fame as the house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Philadelphia’s legendary hip-hop band The Roots continue to cement their legacy as one of the genre’s most consistent acts with their newest release, undun.
Just 18 months ago, the group released How I Got Over
, which tackled various social issues but maintained an upbeat summer vibe with the help of collaborators such as Monsters of Folk and Joanna Newsom. undun
is much darker, telling the story of a character named Redford Stephens, a Philly hoodrat who joins the drug trade and meets an early death.
The album begins with soft, somber songs in “Sleep” and “Make My,” which set the mood for the album’s story with haunting synth lines. Musically, the album begins to hit its stride with “One Time,” which is dominated by long-time Roots collaborator Dice Raw and fellow guest Phonte. A simple piano line and a drumbeat from band leader Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson will get your head nodding, but that shouldn’t take the focus away from Redford’s heart-wrenching struggles that are described here as he finds himself forced to enter the drug game.
“Kool On” then enters with a classic rock-influenced guitar lick and lyrics that glorify the lavish lifestyle of Philadelphia’s drug dealers. “Come get your kool on,” the chorus beckons repeatedly, “stars are made to shine.” That upbeat feeling is quickly ripped away by “The OtherSide,” as the violence and difficulty of the game is highlighted behind a minor piano line and a memorable ?uestlove beat. Dark lyrics such “I’m sitting on top of the world, waiting to jump off” and “every thought is dark as a glass of (expletive) Guinness” detail the conflicts that Redford has to struggle with.
The next song, “Stomp” has the kind of heavy beat that you can blast in your car over and over again, but that would once more deceive the darkness of the lyrics, as guest emcee P.O.R.N. spouts lines like “I’m one shot short of a Molotov cocktail.” “Lighthouse” details Redford’s fall, with Dice Raw and band frontman Black Thought trading off on haunting, hopeless drowning metaphors, and a sung chorus of “there’s no one in the lighthouse, you’re face down in the ocean.”
“I Remember” reflects on the way things used to be for Redford before the final lyrical piece, “Tip the Scale,” details Redford’s acceptance of his death as an escape from the living Hell his life has become. In what is surely a first for the hip-hop genre, undun closes with an instrumental suite composed by ?uestlove and based on the song “Redford (For Yia-Yia and Poppou)” by indie-folk icon Sufjan Stevens, who plays piano here. Stevens’ melodies in the first two movements, seem fitting as a score for a funeral scene, but the third movement is utterly chaotic, with Stevens hitting seemingly random notes while ?uestlove makes full use of his drumkit in a jazz fusion-style freakout. The suite ends with a string quartet as it takes on the feeling of a brief ending credits scene.
The Roots have come along way over the course of their 13-album career. While the band has always been a part of the “conscious” hip-hop scene that music snobs favor over hitmakers like Lil Wayne, undun
is an album that truly requires focus to fully appreciate. Black Thought and the variety of guests are telling stories at a much higher level than they were on classic albums such as Things Fall Apart
, and ?uestlove’s compositions are as strong and complex as ever. This is a strong contender for hip-hop album of the year.