The Roots
undun


4.0
excellent

Review

by Deviant STAFF
December 9th, 2011 | 291 replies


Release Date: 2011 | Tracklist

Review Summary: If there's a Heaven, I can't find a stairway

While the idea of telling a story in reverse is a concept not entirely new to the music world, to take Philadelphia collective The Roots’ latest full length at its word, undun begins with the hope that salvation might lie ahead for Redford Stevens. That the crushing finality and almost taunting steadiness of the heart monitor that opens up the album is merely a possible scenario, one that might only come to pass. The sad reality of undun is that the narrative never bursts with the possibility of options, it’s a by-the-numbers recount of a story that we’re all too familiar with - a man born to the streets, dying young out of ignorance, forever memorialized as simply another young casualty of life; adorned in nothing more than a shroud of hospital sheets he sits aboard a steel raft of cast iron wheels, slowly being led down halls of pale fluorescent light and the deafening cries of utter silence.

A lot has been made about the dark nature of this album, and while the group has seemingly opted to borrow their narrative straight from the tabloid headlines they forgo the obvious parallels of telling an honorable redemption story and instead simply posit their album with the simple statement of “this couldn’t have gone any other way”. That this man’s existential crisis ends simply and tragically with his inevitable death is the most damning condemnation of all, a concept that offers no clear solace. Because undun refuses to tip-toe around the situation, and while what we are offered is sometimes nothing more than a brief sketch or a hazy outline, it’s not in the unavoidable fatalism that we’re told to pity, but the circumstances that led to this.

But it’s in this point that undun begins to fall apart: not only are we not given a great deal to work with (the majority of the character’s back-story relegated to interviews and an iPad app), what we are initially handed is nothing more than the inherent stereotypes that seemingly come pre-packaged with this archetype of novelistic flair. And Black Thought has always been a poet more invested in observing, using metaphors and snippets of ideas as a form of storytelling; here, encased within something that demands structure, his tendencies to border more on the thematic slightly hinder the process. The tale of undun is one that demands a concise statement, and Black Thought, along with Greg Porn and Dice Raw, aren’t ones adept at being so obvious. If all we’re offered is to take these emcees at their utmost word, lyrically the concept of a man realizing the unavoidable only after he’s succumbed to it falls a little short of the mark.

Musically, undun moves in a similar state of ambivalence, echoing the more moody and neo-soul palette of How I Got Over. The album sees the group working at their most refined, but also at their most restrained. While select pieces are introduced to balance the urgency and insistence of the album’s theme, for the most part undun shows the band’s backing section working more in a state of meditation, allowing the thematic nature of the concept to provide the true punches to the album. But there is a nagging suggestion that the music was more of an afterthought; that when the story was put into words it was simply designed to not bolster the narrative, but to merely serve as a platform for the mournful expressionism, casually acquainting itself with the subject matter rather than emphasizing its more disconcerting moments. And being that at its heart undun is a hip hop album, Dice Raw also attempts to infuse the album with as many hooks as possible. Sometimes these function beautifully, as is the case with the anticipatory ‘Lighthouse’ and ‘Tip The Scale’; but then there’s the gospel-leaning reverence of ‘One Time’ that nearly ruins the inherent cynicism of the piece. ‘I Remember’ suffers a similar fate as well, chiefly because every voice on the album is designed to be another incarnation of the protagonist’s interior monologue, and while the anonymous female-fronted deviations work within the structure of the song, presented as another take on the same story the anonymity of such an outside source infuses the theme of the album with an air of gravitas that unwisely attempts to place it within the realms of mere fiction.

Surprisingly though, these faults actually do more good than harm for the album, and only appear as a chief result of the underlying concept of the work. They raise questions, but not so much about the quality of the material itself, but the content; questions are deliberately left unanswered, and while the supplemental material does a fine job of building upon the world that The Roots have created, the idea here seems to be one built more under the pretense of reflection than true dedicated re-telling. We’re not forced to take pity on this man, and the only real attempts at humanizing him come in the form of actually naming him; without that prior knowledge he could merely be just another statistic in a long line of names on the wall. He’s not glorified, chosen to be exemplified or even bemoaned as a martyr of sorts (in fact the four-piece suite at the conclusion of undun places a great deal of ambiguity regarding just which side of the afterlife he ends up on); he’s presented as nothing more than a casualty of his own circumstance, a tragic side-effect that we simply accept because we’ve come to expect it.

And so it’s with that almost casual acknowledgment that undun reveals itself as a statement regarding the significance of life, and the insignificance we place on the strangers that we move through life with. It tells us this by taking one person’s struggle and demise and makes us aware of it, not so we can protest and mourn over him, but so we can say that we did know him. And while the album might not be the most conceptually impressive or even the most well-realized, it accomplishes the task of making something insignificant of significance to us. undun, like its subject matter, is a flawed listen, but it's in those flaws that the album best reveals its most intimate of intentions. And in some ways the album works better as a slightly blemished and broken piece, because like its protagonist it exits quietly while still leaving so much to say, and it's those pieces of work that weeks later are still being debated over that stand the true test of time.



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user ratings (446)
Chart.
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excellent
other reviews of this album
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Comments:Add a Comment 
Deviant.
Staff Reviewer
December 9th 2011


31158 Comments


I still write about hip hop

Digging: LV and Joshua Idehen - Islands

JesusChris
December 9th 2011


673 Comments


and write about it well, you do.

Chrisjon89
December 9th 2011


3624 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Good review. Album is great.

It's up there with the best I've heard this year but I agree that a few of the hooks are so-so.

Bloodbirds
December 9th 2011


250 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

The album really kicks off for me after song no. 5. I need to listen to this more.

patrickfannon
December 9th 2011


886 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Fucking awesome review. I'm digging this more and more; might bump it up soon.

patroneyes
December 9th 2011


1919 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Great Review. I definitely agree with some points you brought up (some hooks do feel very forced, and the listener is indeed thrown into the story head first), but this review reads more like a 3.5, imo...

Regardless, this is a great album, and you provided great analysis, Deviant.

Gyromania
December 9th 2011


15706 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5 | Sound Off

YOU STOLE MY FEATURE! But that's okay, because this review is, in a word, superb. I like the angle you approached this from and I'm glad to see that you're almost as into this as me.

Deviant.
Staff Reviewer
December 9th 2011


31158 Comments


Haha, sorry man

Added a bit more to the end

twlichty
December 9th 2011


3407 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

good review

HenchmanOfSanta
December 9th 2011


1865 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Well all the other reviews just got destroyed.

Gyromania
December 9th 2011


15706 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5 | Sound Off

Well, that's maybe a little bit harsh, lol.

astrel
December 9th 2011


2614 Comments


Not that it really matters, but I think it is supposed to be spelled as Stephens, not Stevens.

tsundereSCIENCE
December 9th 2011


152 Comments


So this is pretty cool

Gyromania
December 10th 2011


15706 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5 | Sound Off

Question: isn't "Emcee" a more formal way of saying "MC"?

Deviant.
Staff Reviewer
December 10th 2011


31158 Comments


yip

Inveigh
December 10th 2011


24963 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

love the beats/music on this, probably more than most of their recent albums. It just doesn't seem quite as complete, lyrically, as some of the other top hip hop albums this year (Phonte, Big K.R.I.T, Raekwon, etc).

I mean I know it's a concept album and all, but it still just seems... idk, incoherent? I thought a lot of Oneirology bordered on cheesy, and doesn't really drift into that territory, but this manages to be both linear and incomplete at the same time.

still a really enjoyable listen though. excellent review as always homie.

jefflebowski
December 10th 2011


8242 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

fantastic review

Digging: Brian Eno and Karl Hyde - High Life

Iai
Emeritus
December 10th 2011


3553 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5

The ratings chart for this shocks me, not gonna lie.

scissorlocked
December 10th 2011


3509 Comments


review is excellent

Gyromania
December 10th 2011


15706 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5 | Sound Off

This is lame but Goblin is cool?

"The ratings chart for this shocks me, not gonna lie."

Niiiiiiiiiick nooooooooo.



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