The Roots are the Tim Duncan of hip hop.
Their music is hardly reliant on made-for-radio choruses or flavor-of-the-month production. To the average music listener, Black Thought is hardly a captivating frontman. While some rabble rouse about their riches, Thought is a blue collar emcee, at-ease with his trademark tweed suit, flat cap and a pair of shades.
Instead, they’ve emphasized the fundamentals while attaining an almost unparalleled level of longevity in the hip hop world (two decades and counting). And like No. 21, the output has been consistently above average.
Cue undun, the band’s latest endeavor and 13th studio full-length.
Thematically, this is the band’s most complex work to-date, relying on a narrative structured in the form of a reverse arc. The story of our protagonist, one Redford Stephens, begins metaphysically enough. A flatline (“Dun”) slowly joins a revived heartbeat and a carousel of instruments transport the listener into “A Day in the Life” meets Pulp Fiction, as Stephens vividly backtracks through the series of the events earlier in the day that led to his present predicament.
Dissonant electronics and Aaron Livingston’s hypnotic vocals (“Sleep”) maintain a dark ambiance, but it’s not long before Big K.R.I.T.’s talk about prayer over lobster and steak livens the mood, as “Make My” closes out with a gorgeous two minute instrumental coda, indicative of meaningful transition.
Whereas 2010′s How I Got Over began in gloomy fashion before the clouds cleared for the second half, undunturns the light / dark dichotomy on its side. Here, we find a sort of inverted gradient where the darker music is pushed to the edges, while the lighter, uptempo music is found in the center.
Led by Black Thought and anchored by a talented Greg Porn, the core of the album appears to represent Stephens in celebration mode. Porn, the young Philly whippersnapper and frequent Roots collaborator formerly known as P.O.R.N., drops some of the darkest and devilishly clever one-liners of the year, giving Tyler, the Creator a run for his money on who really needs a therapist.
On “Stomp,” renowned producer Just Blaze works in some Scott Storch-style “Still D.R.E.” keys alongside a blues riff from guitarist Kirk Douglas. And the fuzziness of the looped D.J. Rogers sample on “Kool On” hearkens back to DJ Premier, its verses delivered with a classy bravado that would fit in on the set of Boardwalk Empire.
Interestingly enough, the DJ Premier influence appears to be prevalent on several of undun‘s tracks, including “Lighthouse,” with its delectable keys that are downright edible. This is the final third of the record, and the most baffling (in more ways than one). Hooks have always been a question mark for the Roots, and despite some great ones on here, the female chorus on “I Remember” decisively hits the ground with a thud.
Yet, it’s followed by the closing vocal track, “Tip the Scale,” which ranks among the group’s best. It’s a stunningly heartfelt portrayal of inner city despondence consistent with ?uestlove’s analogies between Stephens and certain characters from The Wire, and the bridge’s lush instrumentation only takes the song to new heights.
This is where the narrative gains another level of depth, as the final verse of “Tip the Scale” and its bridge unexpectedly echo the transition to death characterized on “Make My.” The four song orchestral suite featuring Sufjan Stevens to close the album only serves to reinforce the dark notion that death (“You either done doing crime, or you done in”), in either literal or figurative form, is the only way out of Stephens’ destitute environs.
Undun presents the duality of life and death, and the dark realities of inner city life, seemingly in the form of a David Lynch script. This is a work of art in its truest form, and the obsessive attention to detail in the lyrics and music highlight this. (?uestlove talks about executive producer Richard Nichols forcing guest emcee Phonte to re-write his verse on “One Time” no less than 17 times to fit the Stephens narrative).
Luckily for the Roots, their late night residency has granted them new-found free time, rejuvenating the band’s career and creative juices. In a possible omen for the San Antonio Spurs’ championship hopes, the Roots have entered the most prolific period of their existence. In undun, they have delivered their 13th effort to-date and perhaps, their magnum opus.