For decades now, The Roots have continued to produce album after album of quality hip-hop at its finest, with a lengthy but well-respected discography and numerous Grammy Awards. The Roots are a noticeable standout within the genre of hip-hop, a culture which has been commercialized to breed individual, super-star MCs imaged and tailored for mass marketing to the corporate liking of their major labels. Aside from the fact that The Roots frequently perform and produce their compositions as a group (a rare feat in an industry which circulates the newest singer/songwriters, DJs, producers and engineers like hot commodities), the group displays a very alternative style which is defined through a distinctively acoustic, raw and natural aesthetic of hip-hop music making. This natural talent is easily identifiable at their live performances, all of which has further contributed to the band’s balance of creative and commercial success.
Throughout their career, The Roots have largely avoided the industry trend to fully rely on digital sound production technologies when creating new music. While Questlove and the rest of The Legendary Roots Crew have dabbled their blister-worn and arthritis-prone metacarpals into some forms of electronic music production, the group continues to compose, record and perform their music with a full live band. This includes a set of traditional instruments (drum kit, electronic and bass guitars, tuba, violas, cellos, electronic keyboards and more) accompanied by lead vocals from the group’s long withstanding MC, Black Thought. Despite the fact that electronic music production may be a healthier choice, the Philadelphia hip-hop natives have figuratively stuck to their name. The end result has been a series of incredibly versatile and eclectic hip-hop, jazz, neo-soul and alternative rock albums.
The most recent of these albums is Undun, an existential concept album on the life and death story of a fictional character, Redford Stevens, told in reverse – narrated backwards, from Stevens’s death to birth. The narrative and conceptual inspiration for the album derives from Prince Paul’s album A Prince Among Thieves, while the album title serves as a tribute to Canadian rock band, The Guess Who’s original song, “Undun”. Redford Stevens enters the mix as a result of The Roots’s admiration for Sufijan Stevens’s song “Redford” – a powerful piece appropriated by the band, appearing as one of the four ending movements on Undun.
The album’s opening track, “Dun”, beings with the ominously-familiar, piercing sound of a medical flat line, indicating a dead heartbeat which represents the passing of Stevens. As the track proceeds, the flat line becomes faint and it is joined by baby-like echoes, eerie neo-soul waves and the final heartbeats of Stevens which are eventually cut off by an awakening deadening scream. From there, the album segues into a series of tracks that metaphorically and reflectively retrace the significant points in Stevens’s life story. It begins with his acceptance of death and penultimate downfall – his choice to live the life of a street hustler leading to his departure from the world – through to his highs and lows, and his personal struggles experienced living under unfavourable urban conditions. Eventually the songs work their way back to Stevens’s original entry into his cruel world. The story of Stevens is narrated primarily by Black Thought, who as usual paints stellar pictures through conscious and metaphorical lyrics that avoid overtly materialistic references but carry just as heavy punches, puns and play on words.
Phonte, one half of rap duo Little Brother, provides far more than a just an average guest feature on the album. His authoritative and grimly revealing verse on the fourth track, “One Time”, illustrates the out-of-control realities of the cold-hearted street life which Stevens chooses to embrace in his strive for success, respect and ultimately the illusionary vision of something better than the urban, impoverished lifestyle he lives in – which will inevitably never arrive. Te’s verse is easily the best featured on the album, although Big K.R.I.T’s pure humility and confessing words on the lust for money and life’s finer things, delivered through a smooth flow and classic southern drawl on “Make My”, invokes a different set of emotions, making his verse a close runner-up. K.R.I.T.’s verse reflects Stevens’s acknowledgement of his choice to pursue the fast-paced lifestyle of a street hustler, attracted to the pursuit of money through crime and violence rather than personal success in overcoming the tribulations which he was born into.
The intricately simple combination of hi-hats, snares, cymbal crashes and bass drum are a craft of The Roots’s most prolific member, Questlove. Quest’s drums add volumes to each and every track fortunate enough to be blessed with their presence through an abnormally raw sound that works into the melodies of the track instrumentals as an aural backbone. A musical touch that only a live drummer with the skill level of Quest could offer. Despite the outstanding lyrical contributions from Black Thought, Big K.R.I.T. and Phonte, the greatest emotional output from the album is communicated from its instrumental features.
The album begins ends with four orchestral movements, each with no vocal accompaniment but which speak more than the entire album’s preceding tracks. The sonic language of a very dynamic transition through softly building piano keys accompanied by neo-soul elements which transition into eloquent viola melodies in the first two movements, “Redford [For Yia-Yia & Pappou]” and “Possibility [2nd Movement]”, speak of the innocence of Stevens as a child in bliss, unaware of the harsh realities that he will soon grow into. The violin strings that begin the narrative on the final track, rightfully titled “Finality [4th Movement]”, remind the listener of the purity surrounding the creation of new life. Contrastingly, the abrupt and bold piano keys that resonate midway through this track also inform the listener of the inequalities that can infest new births. In this narrative, these piano keys represent the inequalities of Stevens’s birth into the concrete jungle, bound with temptations to pursue a violent and crime-ridden lifestyle.
The great thing about including guest features in a hip-hop song is being able to hear the versatility of the performers. However for a concept album narrating a character’s struggle in life, guest features can be problematic for the audience in identifying the protagonist from other individuals involved in the plot. In Undun, the guest features do not perform as additional characters within the story of Stevens. Rather they offer a different set of perspectives, meanings, emotions and thoughts which may come off as confusing, but serve as important elements of the story of Stevens’s life, illustrating his ambivalence and misdirection. Undun does not focus the emotions of death on dying itself but more so the loss of potential that results from poor choices. Choices that are partly a result of an individual simply being a product of his environment but more so a result of that individual’s foolishness and inability to foresee the consequences of immediate rewards from violent and destructive urban lifestyles.
In an age where chart topping artists are promoting lifeless singles produced from digital software technologies with little to no live instrumentation, Undun is a creative and authentic piece of sonic narration which will unfortunately struggle to be accepted by the mass audience. Concept albums are a tough pitch in a market dominated by iTunes singles purchased by attention spans that last less than it takes to download them. Undun deserves credit that it will inevitably never see, similar to the circumstances of the album’s protagonist, Redford Stevens – a man who makes the wrong decision and pays for it, despite being a good individual who had potential for triumph.
Final Comments: Loose narrative but easily relatable. Excellent musical production and instrumentation combined with phenomenal guest lyricists makes this album an enjoyable and consciously digestible product of music.