It starts at the end—a flat-lined heart monitor opening the notes to the The Roots’ tale told backwards. That is the demise of Redford Stevens, the semi-fictional protagonist of Undun, and what follows is the tale of an urban life hijacked by the allure of easy money through crime. Rather than fall prey to the hip-hop illusions of high life grandeur, The Roots weaves a tale of spiralling downward, made all the more poignant by a character wholly self-aware of his Faustian bargain.
Redford’s cognizance that he’s on a road to ruin provides the backbone to this album, through songs like Make My. Such music exhibits not only the band’s success in telling the story of this concept album, but also show that The Roots has retained over the years the qualities that make it critical leader of the genre; diverse musical influences leading to unique interpretations, and intellectual depth that overshadows the vapid players in the field.
Diverse influences have taken the band on an interesting trajectory; it hit its artistic peak with 1999’s Things Fall Apart, a title inspired in equal measures by Chinua Achebe (a famous modern African writer) and the poetry of W.B. Yeats.
Twelve years later, Undun’s protagonist is inspired by a Sufjan Stevens song, Redford. Stevens and his track are both featured on the album, before giving way to three movements of classical music. For all its forays into eclectic sounds, and even though the transition from Roots beats, to Stevens emo, to Roots classical consistent with the theme explored through Undun, you can’t help but find the orchestral arrangements surreal, juxtaposed against the rhymes of Black Thought.
So the tale of Redford Stephens, as told by The Roots crew, only lasts 10 songs. While it may be succinct, Undun still requires a healthy number of collaborators to tell the Roots-Stevens story. Where Black Thought is restrained in his delivery, and subtle in his lyrical stylings, the respective individuals joining him at the mike add the emotion that The Roots lyricist sometimes lacks.
As the music progresses from track to track, the theme of the backwards tale works well. The half-awake Sleep segues into the self-aware Make My, as the beat picks up. One Time has our protagonist in the throes of his existential crisis, seeking to justify his choices as he contemplates the afterlife; “I wonder when you die do you hear harps and bagpipes/If you born on the other side of the crack pipe.”
Kool On has the potential to read like a dozen rap anthems that came before it, until you place Redford’s love for the hustle in the context of Undun’s tale of downfall. By the time The Otherside wraps up, it’s clear that despite a haphazard process, The Roots has a firm grip on the principle of a concept album.
On goes the album, through a rollercoaster of emotive tunes ending with Tip the Scale, where The Roots’ lyricist asks the question which embodies the tale already told, in asking how many of those going to prison “come out Malcolm X.”
The highlight of this album is undoubtedly the music; the beats and tunes that provide the backdrop to Black Thoughts’ rhymes. The Roots is a large band, unafraid of introducing big sounds and new sounds to its tracks. It is, however, a testament to its talent that what comes through the speakers isn’t ostentatious, but a reflection of quiet confidence that a listener can truly become lost in.
As a long time fan of The Roots, it’s hard to admit that the album does indeed fall short of the perfection the band constantly strives for. Nevertheless, in a world where mainstream hip hop is too often devoid of intelligence, Undun fills the void with something that has meaning and skill, and a nice touch of storytelling inspired by rap’s emo buddy.
Asad Khawaja hosts Moonlight Mile Thursdays 10 pm to 12 midnight on CityFM89