In 2009, the Roots became the house band for the late-night show Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Fans of the endlessly experimental hip-hop group though they would ratchet down their productivity, but the Roots fired back with 2010’s excellent How I Got Over and a Wake Up!, a fine covers album with neo-soul/R&B singer, John Legend.
The Legendary Roots Crew’s tenth album and fourth for Def Jam is a heady and existential concept record centering on the life of the fictional character Redford Stevens. The flippin’-in-the-ghetto-on-a-dirty-mattress protagonist was influenced by Sufjan Stevens’ Greetings From Michigan and Redford’s grim story is told in reverse, commencing with the sound of a flatlined heart monitor.
Undun‘s rich, yet short tableau (its 14 tracks clock in at a curt 38 minutes) is devoid of any real singles and the subject matter is fairly stark, even for a Roots release. How I Got Over‘s indie and soul influences are expounded upon here and flower into tight snare beats, glowing keyboards, strings, and choral arrangements. Roots MC Black Thought displays Redford Stevens keeps the subject matter grounded and everyday. This album is the 99 percent antecedent to Kanye West and Jay-Z’s 1 percent antics on August’s Watch the Throne.
The album has a true soul heartbeat at its center. Keen listeners will pick up on a Curtis Mayfield influence in the way the narrative slowly uncoils like a reticulate python and then constricts to a suffocating end. There is an inherent concentricity to Redford’s life. The chaotic qualities of the album’s end strangely dovetails into the quietude of its begining. It’s all told with an analog warmth and easygoing cadence. Both make these grave tunes hard to deny.
Despite the professional production from drummer ?uestlove, undun can sound like an austere museum piece, better suited to admiration than adoration. Instrumental coda “Make My” is a monolith that’s unfairly chiseled down into a rough-hewn statue, while “Kool On” is a sleek funk vehicle that is largely forgotten after the music stops.
You would think that undun would be an incredible snore to slog through, but its concept is usually quite elastic. The four-movement “Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)” outro stops much of that progress to a schreeching halt. That segment of the album begins with a striking Sufjan Stevens appearance. The other three movements are just interesting experiments.
As strange as it is, the majority of undun reads like a regular hip-hop release. The main group is diluted by too many guest rappers. The tale of a street smart drug dealer is ultimately pedestrian. Black Throught doesn’t showcase enough grit through his verses. It’s more akin to watching a PBS documentary over an episode of The Wire.
The Roots manage to craft another interesting hip-hop experiment with undun. It’s just an utter shame that the heart of their protagonist is left out of the conversation. Any tale of a man going from “a man to a memory” should retain some shred of true pathos. The Roots continue to age with fitful grace and panache.
Review by Kyle Lemmon