The artwork for The Roots’ thirteenth studio album undun depicts a child completely inverted, mid-air, after springing up from a frayed, dirty and potentially dangerous, mattress. In that fleeting moment he’s flying. For a fraction of a second he rises above his surroundings. On undun, the listener witnesses the brief flight of the fictional, but all too real, Redford Stephens, a 25-year-old young man. He, as we learn on the first song, has died tragically. From there, the album follows a reverse narrative structure that allows the listener to trace Redford’s steps and see what led him to his demise. While ambitious, undun isn’t quite so successful in executing that bold storyline, but still stands out for what it is: a beautifully sequenced, cohesive, body of work that can jockey for position among the best albums in The Roots’ discography.
On undun, The Roots were able to perfect a consistently strong aspect of their career long approach: the guest appearance. Each vocalist, emcee and instrumentalist works together in an almost symbiotic fashion. With no part outshining the whole, the album develops like a masterfully shot film with a talented ensemble cast. Star turns from Phonte playing the bad guy on the sudden “One Time” (“weak-heartedness cannot be involved/stick to the script nigga/fuck your improv“) and Big K.R.I.T.’s resigned acceptance of mortality on the somber lullaby that is “Make My” show each guest applying what they do best without losing sight of the overall theme. Surprisingly strong performances by Money Making Jam Boys cohorts Greg Porn and Dice Raw, also add value instead of just occupying space in between Black Thought’s verses.
Fans of Thought as an unbridled microphone fiend might be taken aback by his subdued vocal approach on undun. He uses his voice as a sniper rifle as opposed to his usual 100-rhyme-drum assault weapon. The best example of this is his surgical dissection of the jagged guitar riffs on “Stomp” (“Speaking of pieces of a man/Staring at a future in the creases of my hand/It reads like a final letter I’m leaving for my fam but/It’s written in language they will never understand“). Throughout the album, Thought plows through without wasting one bar on unnecessary flourishes. A sense of desperation in his voice is subtle, but palpable throughout the album.
Even with the eclectic vocal performances, the production is far and away the star of this album. From rainforest lush orchestral strings, to incomparable percussion work by ?uestlove and throbbing keys, each track is an unique aural experience that still manages to work together collectively. Highlights included the upbeat “Kool On.” The classic rock meets classic soul soundscape seems perfect for a Spike Lee, “protagonist floating above rapidly worsening or confusing circumstances” montage. The subtle nod to Wu-Tang’s “Tearz” on the funereal “Tip The Scale” is beautifully haunting. ?uestlove anchors rich strings and delicate keys in hip-hop with classic boom-bap drums.
The album’s only glaring weakness doubles as its greatest selling point. Even with the CliffNotes from ?uestlove’s pre-release press run, the album isn’t terribly different thematically from say, How I Got Over or Game Theory . The narrative thread just isn’t that strong compared to the music’s quality. The story’s plot isn’t as clear and easily expressed through the lyrics as advertised, Nevertheless, undun is held together via pure emotion evoked by the production and the seamless way the vocalists collaborate. With each member of the cast of players supporting the other, The Roots prove once again they’re the real Philadelphia Dream Team.
Label: Def Jam | Producers: ?uestlove, James Poyser, Sean C & LV, Richard Nichols, Ray Angry, Khari Mateen, Rick Friedrich, D.D. Jackson