Concept albums are notoriously tough to pull off, but with the Roots’ eleventh album Undun, the legendary crew has triumphed, using a boatload of artists and instruments to craft a focused, sonically surprising, socially-relevant tragedy more reminiscent of The Wire than most hip hop records. Cold-opening with the death of its 25-year-old protagonist, Redford Stephens (named for a Sufjan Stevens track that also appears near the end of Undun), the album unravels the threads that led to his demise while touching on themes like greed, luck, accountability, and (in)justice.
Much of the record plays like a grim rejoinder to glam- and gangsta-rap records, a caveat for anyone who’s sold his soul for the CREAM—a maxim questioned outright on tracks like “Make My” and “The Other Side.” The former track opens with Big K.R.I.T. conceding, I did it all for the money, Lord, and on the hook we hear They told me that the ends / Won’t justify the means. On “The Other Side”—the gospel to the sermon on the next track, “Stomp”— Bilal sings, Don’t worry about what you ain’t got / Leave with a little bit of dignity. The album’s message is dark but clear: shedding your ethics in the pursuit of loot will kill you, and there are no harps playing on the other side. As Black Thought puts it on “Make My”: If there’s a Heaven, I can’t find the stairway.
If it seems like it took me a while to mention the Roots’ frontman, that’s because Undun continues the band’s habit of bringing in a host of guests to shoulder the lyrical load. At least eight of the fourteen tracks feature cameos, and on many Black’s voice is not the first we hear—if we hear him at all—reinforcing what most people already know: Questlove is the captain of the band. Black’s absence is noticeable but not disappointing, as Big K.R.I.T., Dice Raw, et al. bring their A-game. The counter-intuitive choice to have several artists narrate one man’s fall works on two levels, allowing different voices to express the varied and often contradictory aspects of Stephens’ character, and implying that Stephens is not someone so much as he could be anyone (even you, dear Reader).
Though greed is Stephens’ tragic flaw, other factors play a part in his downfall. “One Time” suggests either bad luck or irresponsibility, calling to mind that chronically late friend who always shows up equipped with excuses, to the point that you can’t tell if he’s a fuck-up in denial or just fucked. The equally ambiguous “Lighthouse”—probably the weakest track on the album; one that, ironically, drowns the listener in watery metaphor (If no one’s in the lighthouse / You’re face-down in the ocean)—implies isolation and a lack of guidance, but whether these are due to failures personal or societal (or both) is murky. “Tip the Scale,” the last track before a four-part instrumental conclusion, calls out the U.S. justice system for its racially motivated imbalances (The scales of justice ain’t equally weighed out / Only two ways out: diggin’ tunnels, or diggin’ graves out) but acknowledges that blame also lies with the individual. On the chorus, Dice Raw raps Some live life just livin’ well / I live life tryin’ to tip the scale / My way, repeating the last line three times for emphasis, and bringing the album full-circle thematically.
Musically, this is perhaps the most diverse and impressive Roots record to date, beating out even 2010’s glorious How I Got Over. Shut your eyes and picture an instrument: it’s probably on the album. The drums and bass won’t surprise anyone, but the piano and electric guitar might, not to mention the curveball conclusion: a four-track, five-and-a-half-minute jazz movement that lets the instruments do the talking. This is a polarizing move for fans, if not critics. I like the songs but wonder if they might work better dotting the album as interludes instead of arriving all in a row at the end.
Still, it’s hard to argue with guys this skilled, or an album this tight (which clocks in at thirty-eight minutes). Sixteen years later, the Roots are no longer asking if we want more. They’re just giving it to us.
Evan Allgood's work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Millions, LA Review of Books, The Toast, and The Billfold. He lives in Brooklyn and contributes regularly to Paste. Follow and maybe later unfollow him on Twitter @evoooooooooooo.