Review: The Roots – Undun


Mike Hayes staff writer

The Roots have been known for breaking musical barriers throughout their near twenty-year career. Their thirteenth and most recent album, Undun, is another example of how the band continues to outdo themselves with each release. Undun is a concept album that tells the story of Redford Stephens, a young man who meets his end by merely trying to make ends meet. Stephens’ life story is told entirely in reverse, as the album opens with the steady drone of a heart monitor followed by a heartbeat and the introduction to Stephens in the second song, “Sleep,” as he accepts his fate.

As the album carries on, we learn more about Stephens and why his life ends in such a cruel, yet predictable fashion for a young man in the streets of Philadelphia. Redford Stephens is not a protagonist or an antagonist, he’s neither hero nor villain; he’s a human being, one with plenty of mistakes in his past, but by no means a bad person. The songwriting ability of each person involved is put on full display with poetic verses that put the listener in Stephens’ shoes.

Tariq Trotter of The Roots, also known as Black Thought, proves that he’s one of the most talented lyricists in hip-hop history with his performance on this album. Phonte, Dice Raw, and Bilal are among the featured artists who add to the lyrical masterpiece. One of the standout songs, “Make My,” has Trotter as a remorseful Stephens, contemplating suicide after reflecting on his dismal life. The character’s pain is illustrated so vividly that it can be felt by anyone who’s encountered rough patches in life.

“I’m contemplating that special dedication/ To whomever it concern, my letter of resignation/… The heat of the day, the long robe of ‘muerte’/ the soul is in the atmosphere like airplay/ If there’s a Heaven, I can’t find the stairway.”

The story of Redford Stephens is captivating from, in the case of this album, end to beginning, but what really sets the album apart is its instrumentation.

The Roots have been making music for almost twenty years now, and their sound has taken new directions with every album. Undun is certainly no different. It is their most unique and musically ambitious album yet, and might band’s best release. Once The Roots released the dark, gritty Game Theory in 2006, they have taken twists and turns, including 2010’s indie-rock-tinted How I Got Over. Undun retains a few musical ideas from the three albums made in that time span, while also adding orchestras and hard jazz elements for the first time in their career. While I personally found the album to be near flawless, the four-piece outro, “Redford Suite” consisting of nothing but strings, a pianist and the drummer, “Questlove,” might alienate some listeners, especially those who are rarely outside the hip-hop bubble.

Undun is short in length, clocking in at less than 40 minutes in its entirety, but by no means does it feel unfinished. Much like How I Got Over, this album should improve over time, with the listener possibly uncovering more about the character and story with each listen. Undun is definitely worth purchasing in this piracy-heavy era. It is by far the best rap album of 2011 and is, genre aside, one of the year’s best overall releases.