Review Summary: The Roots scale it down, distill greatness.
After seeing the Roots live this summer and watching them perform mischievously on Jimmy Fallon’s show, I’d expect their new album to be a big showy, brassy affair. Instead, it’s scaled down, condensed, distilled. At 39 minutes it’s their shortest album to date. But it is not weakened by brevity. The 9 songs on this album with words are all brilliant, bursting with wordplay and unstoppable flow that lead MC Black Thought and his revolving cast of characters (especially Dice Raw and, um, Greg Porn) have been known for since the Roots’ beginnings almost 2 decades ago. But what makes this album amazing is not simply the level of rapping, but the level of content. The lyrics chronicle the daily life and musings of a poor, intelligent urban man, combining inner-city imagery with grander musings about the past and the passage of time and turning his struggles with existence into universal statements. The beats on this album are perfect, complimenting their lyrics with deep and enticing chord progressions and riffs, their most consistent set of excellent beats since Things Fall Apart. The choruses, more often than not, include stellar vocal performances.
(NOTE: This album also contains what might be music’s first reference to the Occupy movement on “One Time”... of course, it’s tongue-in-cheek)
Undun ends with a mini-suite of four movements, traveling through solo piano chords via Sufjan Stevens (It’s actually an earlier Stevens recording, “Redford,” which apparently inspired this whole album) into arresting classical string pieces and flailing free jazz. The Roots have always been about making hip-hop more than hip-hop, and to me they’ve seemed to be eternal messengers of music itself in the mortal guise of some talented hip-hop musicians from Philly. Maybe that’s just me. But I defy anybody to listen to this album and tell me it’s just simple hip-hop; the brilliance of the Roots is their ability to make it into a greater art, showcased nowhere better than on this gorgeous instant classic of an album.