The Roots – undun [Review]

For almost 25 years, The Roots haven’t just earned the title of “the hardest working band in Hip-Hop”, but the one of the hardest working bands in music. And it doesn’t seem like their slowing down anytime soon. Besides being the daily house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (Shout out to Michele Bachmann) and touring regularly, last year they released How I Got Over plus an album with John Legend, they also released a joint album with Betty Wright earlier this year, and now return again with their 10th (or 11th depending on who you ask) studio album undun. For undun, The Roots go conceptional and tell the story of fictional character Redford Stevens. But to be even more Hip-Hop nerdy, they also choose to tell the story backwards; from death to birth (Think of it as gangster Hip-Hop version of Memento. Okay not really). Let’s find out if undun‘s concept driven story of Redford Stevens is a hit or miss…

1. Dun
Produced by Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson & Ray Angry
Short instrumental with no rapping but with a dash of psychedelic undertones. You faintly hear things in the background like a baby crying and even a scream at the end. Obviously this intro (or outro?) is just a setup for the rest of the album.

2. Sleep
Produced by Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson & Hot Sugar
On the first real track off undun, let me first say that I love the hook here by Aaron Livingston. Matched with the somber production, Livingston really sets the tone for the song even though it’s just a little over two minutes. Black Thought only gives us one verse here but it’s enough to capture the idea that we’re getting the ending first (“Oh, there I go, from a man to memory/Damn, I wonder if my fam will remember me”). It makes you want to check out the next track because you want to see how we got to this point.

3. Make My
Featuring Big K.R.I.T. & Dice Raw; Produced by Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, Khari Mateen, & Ray Angry
“Make My” was the first single released for undun and I understand because on an album that doesn’t really have one radio single, this is as close as you can get. When I first heard this, I thought it was just talking about dealing with the mark you’ll leave in this world after you die. But now I know what this album is trying to do and after the previous track, it makes even more sense. In the rhymes of Big K.R.I.T. & Black Thought you hear things like “Too busy looking backwards for jackers to pump my brakes” & “If there’s a Heaven I can’t find a stairway”. Once again the production here is somber and introspective.

4. One Time
Featuring Phonte & Dice Raw; Brent “Ritz” Reynolds & Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson
Okay, check out the chorus here:

I was always late for the bus
Just once can I be on time
Then I start to think what’s the rush
Who wants to be on time
Feeling unlucky and if I ever got lucky it was one time
In this crazy world

That has to be the most depressing and yet one of the best hooks I’ve heard in a long time (For some reason it reminds me of Nas’ “War“). Real shit. I’m trying to figure out at what point this song represents in Redford Stevens’ life but I think this is just a glimpse into his street life.

As for lyrics, we have Phonte, Black Thought, & Dice Raw all turning in great performances but Phonte starts it off and kills it (“I never hope for the best, I wish a nigga would/Turn around and walk away, I wish a nigga could”).

5. Kool On
Featuring Greg Porn & Truck North; Produced by Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson
Anchored by a sample of D.J. Rogers’ “Where There’s A Will”, the way “Kool On” starts makes you feel like someone just turned on the radio in the car and you riding shotgun with Redford Stevens. It also makes you feel like this is something Frank Lucas would have had playing in the background of his house. I don’t know if this was the effect desired, but thats what I took from it.

I liked the song and see where it give us a snapshot of the street like (“Hustle anonymous still remain nameless”) but I really didn’t like P.O.R.N.’s Greg Porn’s verse here and that may have brought the enjoyment done a bit.

6. The Other Side
Featuring Bilal & Greg Porn; Produced by Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, James Poyser, & Richard Nichols
I’ll be honest here, I liked this better when performed live then hearing it here. Don’t get me wrong, “The Other Side” is still a good track but to me it’s can get a bit boring (Reading other reviews and comments on this album, I know I’m in the minority). Oh, and I like Greg Porn’s verse here much better than on the previous song.

7. Stomp
Featuring Greg Porn & Just Blaze; Produced by Sean C & LV
As soon as the song starts you get why it’s called “Stomp”; the tempo sounds like an elephant walking. Just Blaze talks on the hook and some would even think it was a sample from an old civil right speech but it works here.

As for the storyline of Redford Stevens, Black Thought rhymes about right or wrong/”win and lose” and the street just being dog eat dog. I’m guessing this is Steven’s inner monologue on the way his life is.

Sidenote: Most of the time, I hate it when Just Blaze is on a track but doesn’t produce it.

8. Lighthouse
Featuring Dice Raw; Produced by Rick Friedrich & Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson
Earlier in the review I said “Make My” was the most radio song on undun. Scratch that; “Lighthouse” definitely has a more mainstream feel. The hook is catchy and really has a upbeat feel. It’s funny because if I’m not mistaken, it seems like the song may be talking about a friends or friends that lost their lives to the streets. Whatever it’s about I like this song a lot. Dice Raw really showed his range here handling rap and singing duties.

9. I Remember
Produced by Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson & Khari Mateen
In the story of Redford Stevens it seems this is the point where his innocence was lost while looking back at better times. Did a friend get murdered? Did Redford have something to do with it? Probably.

It’s only human to express the way you really feel
But that same humanity is my Achilles’ heel
A leper can’t change his spots and never will
So I’m forever ill
Now I can never chill
What’s keeping me from breaking out like Benadryl
When my baptism of fire resulted in a kill
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

Also, shout out to the uncredited Jazzyfatnastees who handle the hook here as well as other tracks off undun; really gives the album a cohesive feel.

10. Tip The Scale
Featuring Dice Raw; Produced by Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, Khari Mateen, Richard Nichols, & Ray Angry
This song may have the best production of the whole album. Story wise or as a standalone track, lines like “Lot of niggas go to prison/How many come out Malcolm X?” hit home regardless (That’s from Dice Raw’s verse. He shows out here). The chorus sums up the song nicely:

Homicide or suicide
Heads or Tails
Some think life is a living hell
Some live life just living well
I live life tryna tip the scale
My Way, my way
My Way, my way

In the story of Redford Stevens it seems like he may have actually killed a friend to get ahead.

11. Redford (For Yia Yia & Pappou)
Performed & Produced by Sufjan Stevens
After doing some reading, I learned that this is basically a song by indie folk artist Sufjan Stevens’ track of the same name. Not a sample, but basically the exact same track. Now I don’t know if The Roots chose this track because it shares the same name of the fictional character undun is about or vice versa, but either way it’s nice & peaceful; Like scenes of Redford Stevens’ life are being played on a wall from an old movie projector.

12. Possibility (2nd Movement)
Produced by Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, Richard Nichols, & Ray Angry
The rest of the tracks on the album are instrumentals that (and I could be wrong) seem to summarize the life of Stevens with this one representing his early life and the possibility of what he could be.

13. Will To Power (3rd Movement)
Produced by Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, Richard Nichols, & DD Jackson
The Roots playing chaotic and random. Things get crazy in Redford Stevens’ life.

14. Finality (4th Movement)
Produced by Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, Richard Nichols, & Ray Angry

Bottom Line:
This is not an album for those that don’t like to take chances with the music they listen to. In a world where music gets cranked out and thrown away at increasing rates, The Roots made an album thats requires thinking and listening. The production feels cohesive and lyrically the extended Roots bandmates like Dice Raw & Greg Porn plus rappers like Phonte & Big K.R.I.T. all help move the narrative along.

But the experiment of undun is not a 100% success. Black Thought, one of the most underrated rappers of our time, couldn’t really show his range here. Because of the subject matter and the way this album plays out, Thought shows lyricism but is caught in the same emotions for most of the duration of undun. Also for many the story of Redford Stevens may be too hard to follow. Hip-Hop albums with a ongoing story aren’t anything new. You have albums in the past that literally play out like a movie on wax like Prince Paul’s A Prince Among Thieves or albums that give you the feeling of the story like Ready To Die or Doggystyle. undun is somewhere in the middle.

All in all, you gotta give it The Roots for still being able to take chances and experiment after over two decades in their careers. undun isn’t as good as last year’s near classic How I Got Over, but with strong production, sharp lyrics, and the ability to take daring chances, it marks another highlight in The Roots’ already impressive body of work.