The Roots – Undun
The Roots – Undun
It begins with a death—yes, the unmistakable tone of an ECG flatline greets the listener when the album begins. And that’s a good idea of what the Roots have in store for you on their thirteenth studio album, Undun. But just who died? A man by the name of Redford Stephens. But before you rush off to research the man, you should know he’s a fictional character, and this is the Roots’ first real attempt at a concept album. Though Stephens may be fictional, he could very well be a real person, which is the point. He’s the sort of guy you hear about on the news and who populates many a rap song—a man from humble beginnings who dreams of bigger things but unfortunately ends up on the wrong side of the law. Forgoing an explicit story line, Undun is more a series of ruminations on death, legacy and finding a purpose told through Stephens’ memories and stories. To this end, Black Thought and guests like Dice Raw turn in solid work throughout, telling hard-to-swallow truths and asking probing questions that don’t have easy answers (“When you return to the essence, what is it back to the essence of?”). But it’s not individual lines that stand out here—it’s what the words mean in the context of the record, how the images pile on each other to paint a portrait of a man whose life seemed doomed from the start.
Fittingly, Undun sounds like the morning of a funeral: There are moments of regret, hope and anger, but its tone is always somber and reflective. Jazz and soul still figure heavily into the Roots’ sound, but here there’s a hypnotic, languid flow to the record, even when the hooks have punch and vigor like on “Kool On” and “The OtherSide.” Spacious arrangements, ethereal piano lines and spacy keyboard effects are the norm rather than the exception, and it gives each song a gentle, resigned feel, no matter how impassioned the raps. Because of this, the music can occasionally seem unwavering. It’s fortunate, then, that the record culminates in a surprising five-minute instrumental suite, set off by a track taken from Sufjan Steven’s Michigan. It’s a beautifully affecting coda, one that showcases the band’s vision as much as it flexes their musical muscle. Undun definitely takes some time to digest, so anyone looking for some of the more immediate pleasures of older Roots records may initially be disappointed. However, like any good concept record, it rewards effort and gives back as much as you put in. There aren’t many groups that could pull something like this off without it sounding labored or pretentious, but, then again, there aren’t many groups like the Roots.