‘Undun’ combines talent with focus on storytelling

Courtesy of parisdjs.com.

Before delving into The Roots’ new concept album, Undun, one should be warned. This album is not for the light-hearted. It is not a modern-day, Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story. And it is certainly nothing similar to the weed-infused Flatbush Zombie releases I reviewed in my last column. No. Rather, Undun paints a bleak and pessimistic picture of crack-pipes, dark alleyways and street violence. It starts with the death of 25-year old, Redford Stevens, and then traces the unfortunate lineage that led him to his quick demise. It’s a statement of tragedy from The Roots, and a statement of doomed ambivalence. But underneath the gloomy exterior and violent facade, Undun features a musical cohesiveness and complexity that deserves at least some appreciation. And though it very easily could have suffered the same painful fate as many other concept albums, it doesn’t. Undun inserts just the right amount of down-tempo beats and harmonic hooks for the album to find equilibrium, to create a seamless progression from beginning to end.

The 14-track album features 10 beat-based rap tracks, as well as a 4-movement classical piece originally composed by Sufjan Stevens that is interspersed throughout the album. Though this seems like it might make for an unusual composition, when paired with the storytelling lyrics, Undun creates a tale that is both easy to follow and easy to understand. Its narrative plotline takes listeners from helplessness to toughness and motivation, and from estrangement to desperation. Tracks such as “I Remember” provide an introspective aspect to the album, while songs such as “Stomp” and “Kool On” praise the gangster high-life with a ruthless demeanor. Listeners are consequently placed directly in the shoes of Redford Stevens, and walk the very path that led to his death. In other words, as a listener you are taken from the coffin to the streets in what seems to be The Roots’ genealogy of Redford.

Despite the logical narrative progression and cohesiveness from track to track, one standout does exist on the album. Undun’s second track, “Make My,” offers what is arguably the most optimistic soul sound on the album, and features a fluid and effortless verse from rapper Big K.R.I.T. K.R.I.T. manages to find a nice pocket for his Southern-drawl- between the minimalist drum work of ?uestlove and the steady soul riffs that act as a reliable undertone for the track.

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Verses such as “Too busy lookin’ backwards for jackers to pump my breaks,” suggest that Stevens finds himself stuck in the world of crime, unable to get out, while verses such as “I’m contemplatin’ that special dedication, to whoever it concern, my letter of resignation” hint at a resigned acceptance of the street-life Stevens has come to live by. K.R.I.T.’s subtle wordplay within these verses, combined with the minimalist musical approach to “Make My’s” production, creates by and far the most accessible and musically appealing track on Undun, and one that could easily stand alone without the album’s thematic support structure.

Despite the album’s cohesiveness and the group’s obvious musical talent, Undun should not be your introduction to The Roots. Even dedicated Roots followers will have a difficult time approaching it. Though it has received largely positive reviews from magazines and aggregate review sites such as Metacritic, this is an album that does not reveal itself after just one listen. It is a long and undulating experience for the listener, one that opens itself up to many of the same problems as other concept albums – boredom and repetition.

For those with the time and patience, however, Undun provides much to explore. With its swirling rap verses, classic soul hooks, subtle word play and overall cohesiveness, the album constructs its own world, at times making it seem more like a movie than a record. This album certainly won’t have any major hits come from it, nor will it likely be considered one of The Roots’ standout records in their lengthy catalog spanning 10-full length releases.

But, it goes without saying; Undun stands as another example of The Roots musical talent, versatility and originality. In fact, Undun adds a new component to The Roots’ already long and impressive resume (which includes being the house band on the Jimmy Fallon show) – storytellers.

Dylan is a junior. You can reach him at pjensen1@swarthmore.edu.

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