Consistently touted as ‘the thinking man’s hip-hop,’ The Roots have built a reputation for themselves in the rap genre (and beyond) as thought-provoking and clever musicians. This latest release, though not perfect, is testament to that reputation: an ambitious, intelligent album.
A ‘concept album about the life of Redford Stephens, a fictional character who gets involved with drugs’, Undun treads ground familiar to its genre, yet it does so with rare flair. Thankfully without unnecessary swelling-synth-strings or gospel choirs, the subtlety of production reveals tenderness in tracks such as ‘I Remember’ and allows the deftly crafted lyricism throughout the album to be clearly heard. The lack of an obvious standalone single grants the first ten tracks of Undun equal value, as contributing parts to a concept album. No songs stand alone, instead they direct Redford Stephens’ story toward its musical culmination in tracks 11 through Â to 14. The songs therefore are less like songs than movements. They are all well-crafted pieces, certainly, but would be commonplace outside the context of the album.
The last four tracks of Undun are what launch it from just a collection of single-subject songs, with some nice transitional pieces, to a true ‘concept album’. Sufjan Stevens occasions a harmonious strings and piano symphony in ‘Possibility’, which sways, drifts and then declines into a cacophony of percussion in ‘Will to Power’, host to the strident and violent crescendo of the soft strings and piano which starts ‘Possibility’. The last track, ‘Finality’, climbing out from beneath the wreckage of ‘Will to Power’, sounds like a requiem for Redford, and its final note, thundering doom on the piano, confirms his fate, leaving its listener to solemnly ponder.
Like most concept albums and most of The Roots’ albums, this release cannot be digested in a single sitting. It is a thought-provoking and finely crafted concept album, to which I for one will continue listening for a long time to come.