The Roots – ‘Undun’ (Review)

If you’re one of those people for whom the words ‘concept album’ initiate a rising panic within, then adding ‘hip-hop’ in front of them will probably induce a full on cardiac arrest. Well, unfortunately for you, that’s exactly what The Roots’ 13th album is: a life-to-death tale of an inner-city struggler named Redford Stevens (a composite of different real-life characters) set to some of the more adventurous music that this adventurous group have concocted over the years. Oh, and the narrative is also in reverse.

OK, scaremongering aside, the reality is better than all that sounds. Undun is a largely concise, well-crafted hip-hop set with a storyline that neither preaches nor moralises: a straight-up account of a well-worn tale.

The group, spearheaded by drummer/producer Ahmir ‘?uestlove’ Thompson and Tariq ‘Black Thought’ Trotter, cemented its position in the rap pantheon with a string of breathtaking albums in the ’90s, before heading down a more experimental route on 2001’s Phrenology and the live-and-loose The Tipping Point (2004). Recent efforts have been disappointing, Game Theory (2006) and Rising Down (2008) yielding only a couple of decent tracks between them, while the less said about 2010 efforts How I Got Over and the John Legend-vocalised covers album Wake Up! the better.

Undun, then, signifies a relative return to form, and continues a surprising run of creativity in light of the group’s day job as house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The opening tone of a flat-lining Redford leaving the world to the sound of gentle keys and a crying baby drifts into ‘Sleep’; a sparse production over which Trotter (as Redford) tiredly laments his life, contemplating “oh, there I go, from a man to a memory / damn, I wonder if my fam will remember me”.

Sometime collaborator Dice Raw — still familiar to many Roots fans as the explosive 15-year-old who destroyed ‘The Lesson Pt. 1’ way back on 1995’s Do You Want More?!!!??! — is one of a number of vocal observers to Redford’s life and times, trading some eulogising verses with Little Brother’s Phonte on ‘One Time’ before the delightfully named Greg Porn drops some irksome party rap in ‘Kool On’.

‘Lighthouse’ is a highlight; Dice Raw’s radio-friendly hook playing out over a shuffled break beat, while ‘I Remember’ touches on the cathartic nostalgia of childhood recollections. By this point, however, it appears the concept has become confused, and that the previous four tracks were essentially dealing with the same aspects of Redford’s life.

As if to compound matters, the final four tracks serve as four different movements of an instrumental composed by songwriter Sufjan Stevens (probably no relation to Redford), perhaps allowing the listener time to consider the protagonist’s life in full. It’s a shame, as they consist largely of pretentious-sounding piano bashing and mournful string sections, where the time could have been given to more of the enjoyable beats and rhymes of the album so far. However, Undun is largely encouraging for those hoping The Roots hadn’t fully fallen off, and even if their best days are largely behind them, this is definitely the group’s best effort since The Tipping Point.

Read this review in context over at THE STOOL PIGEON

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