I guess at 17, listening to “Distortion To Static” in the whip, I fully expected The Roots to be around 17 years later at 34. Of course, at that time, I also expected by now I’d be listening to A Tribe Called Quest’s ninth LP and Biggie’s sixth. However the transformation that The Roots crew has undergone over the years is far from the “hip-hop jazz fusion” thing they started off with. Gone are the days of changing the “break” every eight bars, or force-feeding the idea that they were a “live” hip-hop act; hell, even Black Thought has side-stepped a bit to let some close-knit family members take center stage.
So while the crew has had a revolving-door roster, and their sound has evolved with the release of each album, one thing hasn’t changed – the consistency. Listeners pretty much know going in that their purchase (or piracy) will be satisfying, despite whatever sound the crew comes with this time around. With undun, the legendary Roots crew serves up their first concept album, centering around the life and death of fictional character Redford Stephens.
Beginning with his death, the album tells the all-too familiar story of a young man at a fork in the road, not knowing which way to go. Presented in part by a team of emcees and vocalists, the loose-knit tale is not as ham-fisted as something like Prince Paul’s A Prince Among Thieves. There are no skits stringing it together and many times it’s not clear to the listener whose voice is speaking – the emcee holding the microphone, or that of Mr. Stephens. That being said, the only real clue that this is a concept album is the fact that the group has deemed it so.
In the end however, whether or not this truly is a concept album is irrelevant, as it stands alone as a damn fine LP.
Like some of the recent Roots LP’s preceding it, undun has a dark, brooding tone, meant to be listened to in full, not piecemeal. Beginning with the character’s death, “Sleep” finds Black Thought lying on the death bed of Redford Stephens, with Icebird’s Aaron Livingston singing lightly over somber keys, while “Make My” employs Big K.R.I.T. and Dice Raw to help examine the price of his actions. Without spoiling things, with each track the album takes a step forward musically, such as on the lush “One Time” (feat. Phonte & Dice Raw) or the hypnotically groovy “Kool On”, ultimately leading to a piano driven, symphonic crescendo that closes the LP out.
Dice Raw provides many of the album’s sung hooks, once again expanding his range as an artist tremendously, making him the unsung hero of the LP. On each “Make My”, “One Time”, “Lighthouse”, and “Tip The Scale”, Dice shows a side unbeknownst to most, suggesting that his next LP will be one that truly allows him to stand on his own as a solo artist.
With a playtime just under 40 minutes, The Roots once again trade quantity for quality, with yet another airtight LP on undun. If undun does have a fault, it could be that it’s hard to grasp the album’s concept with so many different emcees spitting from the perspective of the same character – something that could have probably been better achieved with Thought exclusively handling mic duties. But at the same time, there’s something special about all of those guest verses – hearing Phonte, K.R.I.T., and others flow over The Roots gorgeous production is a reward in itself. In other words, the music comes first, the concept second. Hats off once again to ?uestlove and the crew for continuing to redefine this artform – we expect to still be listening 17 years from now.
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