The Roots: “undun”

Is ?uestlove tired of hip-hop as usual? Sometimes I think that he must be. The last Roots album, How I Got Over, came out just over a year ago, but since then ?uesto has served as drummer, producer, morale director, and full-time publicist for the likes of R&B crooner John Legend, soul survivor Betty Wright, and Memphis organ boss Booker T. Jones. Even How I Got Over cast its net wide, drawing its title from an old gospel song and its guest list (Joanna Newsom, Dirty Projectors) from the indie rock scene.

And now comes undun: A full-fledged concept album. And it gets worse than that, I’m afraid; the album was inspired by Sufjan Stevens, who shows up for a piano recital on one song, and a string quartet is employed throughout. But look here: undun is more streetwise, more hip-hop, than any hip-hop album has been in years. It also hits harder and channels more gut-punch aggression than any Roots album ever—yes, even Game Theory, I think. There are elements of sophistication, but only because the album pulls inspiration from a range of musics and unites them all in the service of big, thumping beats—grooves so wide you could drive a Cadillac through them. It’s a galvanizing and heroic record; it is gritty and by turns hilarious and tragic. It’s great hip-hop boiled down to its essence.

And more to the point, it tells a great hip-hop story. Undun is the tale of a quasi-fictitious kid by the name of Redford Stephens. Red is a corner boy. He is a hustler, but he wasn’t born that way; his hand was all but forced, or so he thought, by the sheer weight of poverty and the unbalanced scales of justice. His story is rendered here without sentiment or romance, without victimization or politicizing. He is given the respect of a rousing biography that’s fueled by anger and fear and sadness and swagger. Undun is gangbusters—stunning and magnificent. And it is the model of urgency. There is not a word or a beat or even a second of silence in which life and death don’t seem to hang in the balance. Which, of course, they do, always. The story unfolds in reverse, so I’m not spoiling anything when I reveal that it opens with Redford’s death.

And as ?uesto has been quick to point out, it’s not just a crime saga. This is an album for all of us—hip-hop heads and Wire aficionados; War on Drugs survivors, enforcers, and innocent bystanders; Occupy-era activists, and anyone who thinks crime and punishment are mere forces of The System, or results of either fatalism or mere moral apathy; it is an album for humans, and suggests that any one of us could just as easily come undun. It does not moralize, it only reveals. It does no settle for reminding us that crime doesn’t pay. It says, here we all are. This is what has happened to us as a culture, and as people.

The album opens with its protagonist’s death partly because beginning at the end gives the whole thing the weight and seeming inevitability of a classic tragedy—but how inevitable is what happens to Red? The Roots portray him as a kid who makes one bad decision, and the rest of his life becomes swept up in the worst thing he ever did. He did it because of the rumbles in his belly. He did it because of poverty’s pull and desire’s addiction, like twin forces of nature. He sheds innocent blood—the blood of a close friend, we are told—because, on the streets, that’s how the game is played, and who is he to buck the system? Phonte’s logic is coldly unassailable: “Stick to the script, nigga, fuck your improv.”

But is it really all scripted? Red wasn’t born a criminal; he becomes one by choice. And yet the album is dense with ideas about perceived fate and free will; in “Stomp,” Black Thought sees the future in the creases of his hand, and in “One Time” Dice Raw wonders “when you die do you hear harps and bagpipes/ if you’re born on the other side of the crack pipe?” Here free will collides with the cruel machinations of corner life, social inequality, and the pull of human want. Red is neither victim nor hero but a tragic figure caught in a tailspin of his own making, his future guided—but not necessarily forced—by systems he can’t control.

The album’s opening songs are the quietest, because it’s only in death that the thoughtful, coulda-been-somebody Red finds peace. “Sleep” is the eerie opener, clinical keyboard tones and graveyard percussion, plus a sinister, disembodied vocal from Aaron Livingstone, accompanying Black Thought as he gives voice to Red’s own post-mortem reflection. “Make My” is similarly soft—smooth, string-led soul on the Philly tip. The song imagines the hustler’s final gasp as the capitalist’s deathbed confession. How else to take lines like: “I did it all for the money Lord/… please forgive us for riding Benzes with camera plates.” And: “If there’s a heaven I can’t find a stairway.” At the end of a lifelong paper chase, there is only ruin. The only thing missing is the eye of a needle.

The undun concept never gets in the way of the music; on the contrary, it provides structure for the MC’s, and especially Black Thought, to do the most ruthlessly focused and precise, filler-free rhyming of their career—every line is loaded—and for ?uesto to lead the band into its most confident and purposeful playing. The sound is pitched somewhere between Game Theory’s jet-black anger and How I Got Over’s twilit introspection, but it’s more empathetic and human than the former and more focused than the latter. “Lighthouse” is the record’s centerpiece and emotional climax; ?uesto bangs the hell out of his hi-hats while Dice Raw delivers the hook, devastating because it’s so anthemic: “And no one’s in the lighthouse/ You’re face down in the ocean.” (Black Thought’s ace line is that the grim reaper’s urging him to “swim deeper”). “Stomp” has a nightmarish, martial beat and Just Blaze inciting violence. “Kool On” is roiling soul and Hendrix blues wailing a tale of bravado and aggression, haunted by the idea tha the fall is just around the corner.

“The Otherside,” meanwhile, might be the most complex and powerful thing here. It’s got a killer ?uesto groove and twinkling piano, until the chorus erupts into organ-drenched, gospel-rock fervor and a killer vocal from Bilal. Black Thought’s opening verse is my favorite on the album. It is killer in its clear thinking; he opens with a plea to “tone it down a bit,” but Red’s internal monologue won’t let him escape the indignation poverty brings: “You may say I could be doing something positive/ Humbled head down low and broke like promises…/ Listen, if not for these hood inventions/ I’d be just another kid from the block with no intentions.” Then Bilal serves up pure white heat: “Never loved what I had/ Always felt like I deserved more/ When we make it to the other side/ That’s when we’ll settle up the score.” Like all these lyrics, it’s difficult to stomach because we know how this story must, and does, end.

But it’s also exhilarating. The album is devastating, it’s true, but also exciting for how clearly and effortlessly The Roots give voice to big ideas and human stories. Undun is an album about choice and circumstance; about crime and poverty; about money and the bonds of kinship—in Red’s case, severed far too soon. It’s a by turn clear-eyed and conflicted reflection of a violent mind, and it runs through sadness and anger, indignation and regret.

The album hits hardest and heaviest at the bitter end—or, I suppose, the beginning. The last proper Roots joint on the album is “Tip the Scale,” which considers choice and circumstance as forces of nature, Red’s rise and fall a matter of gravity. But the tearjerker, and in some ways the heart and soul of the album, is “I Remember.” Here Black Thought does the heavy lifting. Red is unsentimental even as he wades into memory of his past life, friends and family lost along the way. He sees what he has become, but remembers who he once was. The string quarter is especially mournful here, but it’s almost unnecessary. Thought’s final words sting like nothing else here: “Sometimes it’s as cut and dry as a business deal/ You gotta cause the blood of a close friend to spill/ But you remember still.”

It’s an album only The Roots could have made, and I give some of that credit to ?uest, but mostly to the stable of MCs. They are the ones who carry the weight of this story—usual Roots suspects Greg Porn and Dice Raw, guest Big K.R.I.T., and especially Black Thought. No other hip-hop artist could have done undun because nobody else is Black Thought; in anyone else’s care, Red’s story would have sagged under opulence, arrogance, or simply wordiness. Black Thought is, in my mind, the best MC there is because every word is uncompromising and purposeful; there’s no time for cartoony hip-hop theatrics. He’s the perfect voice for Red, the perfect central force for undun.

This is not, by the way, a rap opera. It tells Red’s story not through external narrative but through grimly introspective internal monologues—another Thought specialty. The idea of undun as a concept album struck me, at first, as overblown, despite the fact that How I Got Over and Game Theory were just a tick or two away from being concept albums themselves. Actually, though, the Redford Stevens story gives The Roots focus and structure like they’ve never had before, and rather than obstruct them it inspires them. The MCs gathered here spit fire like they’re giving voice to all the Redford Stephenses out there, which of course they are; the fact that Red is voiced by several, not just by Black Thought, reminds us that this isn’t just another hip-hop mythology. It’s a story about one man, and it’s a story about us all.

I should comment on the album’s final sequence, and one of ?uesto’s true masterstrokes. It’s a four-part movement based on Sufjan’s “Redford,” and it’s not nearly as insufferable as it sounds. In fact, it’s extraordinarily graceful and profound as a wordless conclusion to undun; each movement is only about a minute, making this a much more tastefully brief avant-classical excursion than, say, Phrenology’s “Water.” Sufjan plays the melody, solo on piano; then a string quarter interrupts; then, a jazz freakout dismantles it altogether, and finally it comes back together in a mournful conclusion. Is it meant to suggest multiple readings of the same source material—multiple paths a life can take? Or is it just a seamless whole, one that begins with promise but ultimately comes undun and then just dies?

The Roots mount the question masterfully, and are smart enough not to presume an answer. And yet, the music demands one—because of course, this isn’t just about Red coming undun, but about all of us. Undun isn’t a solution, but a search. And as such, it’s monumentally thrilling.


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