Already widely acknowledged as the most respected hip-hop artists employing live instrumentation in the contemporary music scene, the Roots have cemented that reputation with their gig as the house band of Jimmy Fallon, proving every night that they can play anything with anybody with out losing their credibility or fire. This is an important album even though it is their 13th, and they've recently collaborated with John Legend and Betty Wright. They're now a groundbreaking band talking to a whole new audience that they perhaps never thought they had reason to hope to reach. It's a statement of intent about how they are going to use this position, as a mouthpiece for a genre, a community.
Most of the early reviews and an interview with band leading drummer ?uestlove have focused on the fact that it is a concept album built around a story of a young mid-level drug dealer losing his life and looking back. Don't be perturbed if you think this story has been told before or that the idea of concept albums is played out. The first few times I listened to undun I didn't know that premise and enjoyed it just as much, if not more than I do now with that added information. The story doesn't stand out or bedevil the work with details, only explains a few things. The first sound we hear is of one of those bed-side machines in a hospital that gave rise to the phrase "flat-lining," a low humming beep that reminded me of the sound our dishwasher makes when it's done. Funny how details change your perception! The storyline drops in and out of the heavy narrative, but it could be an everyman story, one that is becoming cliché, because it is still so true.
The lyricism flows wonderfully, set in the here and now with a broad perceptive universal poetry. The group's resident wordsmith Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter is keenly precise, never adding extra flourish. That's left to the guests — Big K.R.I.T, Dice Raw, Phonte and more. Many vocalists are added to the mix, but it's the production, rhythm and feel of the album that is the star turn. Of course I love that it is so obviously attempting to be an album, a work of cohesive tension and release, paced for dramatic affect. Unfortunately four interesting musical snippets are added at the end, that could have been musically prescient punctuation points, showing us where the flow of contemporary hip-hop might go. It's even entitled "Redford Suite" after the the main character of the concept, who is apparently inspired by a Sufjan Stevens song and, like the indie wonderkid's music, alludes to classical music movements. But skipping as they do from freestyle jazz improvisations to short string laden chamber orchestra pieces, collaged together they merely act as a buffer zone between the end and the start if you are listening to the album on repeat... maybe that's the point?!
A staple style of the art form that I simply don't understand or appreciate, the rap song that is built around a soul, gospel or R'n'B sample as the hook, happens on almost every song, sometimes they stick in a good way, other times they stick out in a bad way. The band and their guests also reference themselves and their past work in a few of the lyrics too, and I've perhaps missed even more historical markers along the way which deep fans will enjoy. Doubtless there will also be some new fans having discovered them on the telly that think; "is this safe, sanitized rap that I can expose my kids to?" Well...I had a clean copy to review but I'm assuming that most copies will have a heavy dose of the words they still cannot say on TV. But this story is definitely ready for primetime and so are The Roots.