Monday, December 5, 2011

Album Review: The Roots - undun

The Roots are the most consistently great hip-hop band of all time. Such a statement is daringly bold, but I can’t at this time think of any other group out there who’ve managed to keep in with the current trends of hip-hop without sounding somewhat disingenuous in doing so. How I Got Over is the most obvious indicator of this: The Roots made their sound considerably more streamlined, but they were still able to one-up the vast majority of their contemporaries in doing so. Now, undun still retains that new-age sound, but it also brings the quirks - coming hot on the heels of their 2010 record, undun sounds surprisingly consistent and ingeniously crafted. It’s the Roots’ first concept record, detailing the life of a fictional protagonist named Redford Stephens. Through cultivated beats and introspective lyrical rumination, several guest vocalists lend their voices to help channel energy to breathe life and give a piece of themselves to the role of this character. The end result is an atypical hip-hop concept album that threatens to not only be a huge success, but one that also challenges some of the Roots’ best material to date.

All of this is done within the short time-frame of 40 minutes, and yet, it’s a massive sound. undun sees the inclusion of retro-electronics, suave synthesizers, drafty ambiance, and....classical? Yep, that’s right; The Roots conclude their concept record with a four-piece instrumental suite that shifts from blissfully calming to frighteningly paranoid in a short time-frame. The constituent parts of undun are all equally important to help propel this concept and The Roots immediately showcase this more atmospheric approach with “The Un”, an introduction of sorts that takes only a minute to build this creepy-yet-euphoric sound with the subtle use of ambiance and keyboard. It flows (much like most songs here) perfectly, leading into the next track “Sleep”, a song that focuses on a dark atmosphere by using synthesizers and airy percussion. As short as its running time is (which just reaches over two minutes) one wouldn’t be daft for prematurely thinking it of being filler, but even the shorter tracks here don’t sound as though they were designed to pad-out the record. There’s enough going on in these individual tracks to warrant several replays (although it’s what it all accentuates to that really brings the concept home).

As was previously mentioned, The Roots are still very much keeping in with the moving trends of hip-hop, but they’re able to mix just the right ingredients to avoid the pitfalls others so often find themselves in. undun isn’t just a stripped-back (somewhat) ambient affair with odd quirks, it also blends some of their more aggressive elements as well. The third track, “Make My” is a perfect example of this. Taking the best of both worlds, “Make My” drifts along with a gorgeously down-played piano melody and an immaculately well delivered vocal performance from both Big K.R.I.T. and Dice Raw. Together, the two of them explore this character’s life - one who’s apparently conscious of his narcissism and materialistic views: “I did it all for the money, lord...Addicted to the green”. The character soon after psychoanalyzes himself to end up fraught with regret as he laments: “I’d give it all for a piece of mind, for heaven’s sake”. Not only is it fascinating to hear this character’s struggle, but the music itself is absolutely sublime. A gorgeous vocal melody leads the chorus with soothing percussion before the track is concluded with this unbelievably happy, retro-sounding synth. It might be one of the Roots’ best songs, and the good news doesn’t stop there. “Stomp” is the decidedly aggressive in-your-face romp with a simple - yet stirring - piano backdrop leading the way as Greg Porn spews staunch conviction in the form of a what sounds like a rallying call.

The Roots have really focused on the use of keyboards this time around too. Most tracks feature piano - subtle as they may seem at times - and showcase some of their best melodies ever conceived. “The Otherside” reaches an apex of brilliance for the band, featuring a powerful chorus via Bilal that revolves around delicate keys and an old-sounding church organ. It’s soulful, sad, and overall magical. And those words are probably the best summation of this record. Sure the song structures follow that somewhat repetitive verse/chorus model, but the music and flow of the MCs' words bring everything full-circle and the end result is an immensely enjoyable product - one of the finest hip-hop albums of 2011, I daresay. The only real detractor here (and it’s one of gargantuan proportions) is that “One Time” is blemished by an unfathomably bad chorus. The jazz-tinged piano, evoking an older sound production-wise, coupled with Dice Raw’s best verses to date, are utterly soiled by probably the dullest and least creative chorus of all time. The laziness makes it almost unlistenable, which is a damn shame, because it should have been the best song on the record by a mile. Other than that slightly unfair nitpick, it’s difficult to find faults elsewhere. Even the four-piece instrumental suite that closes the album, which is sure to get listeners to think something along the lines of: “Um, what?”, fits, if only because of how much it achieves in just over 5 minutes. Sufjan’s contribution in “Redford” is truly gripping. Sounding as though it were lifted from some dramatic thriller, the piano really tugs at the heartstrings of its listener as violas gently segue into “Possibility”. After “Redford”’s motif phases out, we’re thrust headfirst into a sporadic, discordant slamming of piano keys interspersed with cymbal crashes on “Will To Power” (think Matana Roberts). And it’s all wrapped up in gentle strings in “Finality”.

Weird as it may be, the conclusion to undun feels completely appropriate, mostly because of what it manages to do with its short time and the range of emotions it touches upon, but it may feel a little out of place to some. Regardless, The Roots are clearly traversing new and exciting terrain and their first ever concept record is a mammoth success. Even with all of its quirks and odd little tidbits, undun is still very much a Roots album, and even though it still feels contemporary it also lifts liberally from the past to help fashion something entirely new. Dice Raw and other guests have really brought their A-game here -- the delivery and flow are both well-weighted and well-delivered ninety percent of the time -- and the music is some of the most creative and beautiful the band mates have ever put their names to. And so, once more, The Roots prove to us and the world that they’re one of the leading acts in hip-hop. They’re an unstoppable force and undun is just one more reason to love The Roots.


1. The Un
2. Sleep
3. Make My (Featuring Big K.R.I.T.)
4. One Time (Featuring Phonte and Dice Raw)
5. Kool On (Featuring P.O.R.N.)
6. The Other Side
7. Stomp (Featuring P.O.R.N.)
8. Lighthouse
9. I Remember
10. Tip The Scale (Featuring Dice Raw)
11. Redford (For Yia Yia & Pappou)
12. Possibility
13. Will To Power
14. Finality