The Roots, undun
By Steve Slagg
December 13, 2011
It was Orson Welles who said, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” When The Roots—who make no bones about their hip-hop being art—go off the rails, it’s usually because they should have listened to him. Their 2002 album Phrenology was filled to bursting in a good way—with drummer/bandleader Questlove’s massive grooves and lead emcee Black Thought’s ideas about hip-hop and life and addiction—but at times it was just too much. In fact, on every Roots album until last year’s How I Got Over there have been moments—usually the more experimental ones—where the banks overflowed and the message was lost.
Let’s be clear: that’s a picky criticism of a handful of really great albums. But when The Roots announced this year’s undun would be a concept album, named after a song by The Who, told in Memento-style reverse about a fictional drug dealer named Redford Stephens and the moment of his murder, and Redford is named after a Sufjan Stevens song and the final moments of the album are a four-movement suite of instrumental explorations of that Sufjan Stevens song—well, it made me kind of nervous.
I shouldn’t have worried. The best artists, understanding what Welles was getting at, are able to use concept as another limitation—just like key or genre or arrangement—that provides focus and direction. And that’s exactly what The Roots have done here: undun is the most focused record of their career.
Oh there I go / from a man to a memory, says Black Thought early on in “Sleep.” And that focus on death doesn’t let up until the very last verse on the album, a Dice Raw rumination on prison that ends with the lines, Only two ways out, digging tunnels or digging graves out. Black Thought has described undun as an “existential retelling” of Redford’s story, which is appropriate. There are no scenes or exposition or dialogue here. In fact, if the album does tell Redford’s life story in reverse, it’s pretty hard to tell. Every note on the album is tinged with doom, and each lyric is haunted by one precise moment in Redford’s life: the moment before death.
That sounds gloomy, and it is. Questlove and the band spend the 38 minutes of the album painting Redford’s story in different hues of the same black-and-white, film-noir feel. The few moments of lightness are what make all the difference: keyboardist Kamal Gray’s hazy synths give the deathbed-regret of “Make My” a beautiful, glowing clarity. Dice Raw’s lilting hook in “Lighthouse” is urgent and life-affirming—even amidst the overwhelming pessimism of the lyrics: You’re face-down in the ocean / There’s no one in the lighthouse—and it’s the catchiest moment on the album.
Speaking of Dice Raw, his guest verses are each scene-stealers (including maybe the album’s best line: I wonder when you die / Do you hear harps and bagpipes / If you born on the other side of the crack pipe), and Phonte, Big K.R.I.T., Greg Porn and Truck North all contribute verses as well. But this is clearly Black Thought’s album. If, as his critics say, he lacks variety in his flow and style, he more than makes up for it in depth. Throughout undun he’s in poet-philosopher mode, and not a lyric is wasted; each line points to another one on the album, each turn of phrase has depths of meaning that reveal themselves on multiple listens.
If anything, undun suffers from having too much focus. Compared to the genre-busting groovefest of Phrenology or the globetrotting pop of How I Got Over, undun is downright unexciting. But I get the feeling it’s meant for those who spend time with it—those who read the lyrics and their fan interpretations on Rapgenius.com and download the album’s accompanying iPhone app to watch the staged interviews with Redford’s friends and family. Redford’s decisions have consequences; watching them play out in slow motion demands self-examination. Even if it’s fictional, this album is personal, and its deepest rewards are personal.
Oh, right. “Redford Suite,” the Sufjan-inspired instrumental closer? It’s brief, and it’s beautiful. The chamber music would seem out of place if it didn’t crop up in a handful of other places on the album, like the Questlove-composed string outro of “Tip the Scales.” That outro serves as a moment of beauty amidst the heaviness of the album, and the Redford Suite inverts that formula—a light, hopeful, minimalist string quartet punctuated by a heavy, violent and atonal drums-and-piano breakdown. It’s a twist of the knife, a stumbling block for listeners attempting to find abstract solace and redemption in the instrumental closer, which starts to serve as a thesis statement for the album on repeat listens. In Redford’s world, even the simplest beauty is touched by violence.
So undun, while not The Roots’ best album, might be their deepest, and it’s uniquely rewarding. They’ve worked within a very strict set of limitations to craft a truly generous, incredibly thought-provoking album about death, regret and the choices that make a man. Dig deep and it’ll change you.