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.
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.