The idea of a concept album is nearly obsolete, but when you have a group with such a storied history as The Roots, creating an album that also tells a story makes a whole lot of sense- even with the current lacking state of ‘the album’ as a format. Music is supposed to tell a story, convey a feeling, or, in the best music – do both. With their 13th album undun, The Roots do this by managing to defy the à la carte listening format of today's Spotify users with a remarkably cohesive and emotive concept album that forces us to take notice of themes too large to fit into a radio single.
undun is based on a character, Redford Stephens, who is faced with the experiences, limitations, and mortality of the streets and drug life. An incredibly dark and even sometimes morbid album, it conveys Redford’s existence in life and death as predestined. And so he gives in to the life, seeming to have no choice: “Illegal activity controls/my black symphony/Orchestrated like it happened incidentally.”
undun is wrought with dark, regretful tones, but it is the lyrics (delivered effortlessly by Black Thought, Big K.R.I.T., Aaron Livingston, Dice Raw, P.O.R.N., Phonte, Truck North, and Bilal) that drive the emotion. The grand leitmotifs of Redmond’s story are woven carefully in the lyrics, so they become vivid when paired with the slow, somber neo-funk tones.
Redmond’s story is poignantly full of hopelessness. One of the strongest standouts on the album, “Make My” has a strangely resolved tone in the music, but allows dichotomy with the lyrics: “Addicted to the green/if I don’t ball I’ll get the shakes/I’d give it all for peace of mind for Heaven’s sake/My heart’s so heavy that the ropes that hold my casket break”, hinting at the relief that may be found in “departure from the world”. Life and death are entwined throughout, beginning with the album’s opening sounds of a flat-line segueing into a heartbeat, and ending with the final sound on the album of an unresolved chord that sounds like a lone truck barreling down a highway in the distance. On first listen to “Sleep”, the lyrics “I’ve lost a lot of sleep to dreams/and I do not miss them yet” brought to mind Shakespeare’s Hamlet soliloquy, “To sleep, perchance to dream”, which may hint at escape from despair through death. This theme of death is driven home unequivocally in “Lighthouse”, with dark lyrics that evoke a drowning “And it seems like you just screamed/its no one there to hear the sound/And it may feel like there’s no one there/That cares if you drown/face down in the ocean”.
All of these images and individual lyrical stories are juxtaposed throughout with remarkably diverse tones – from heavy and melancholic to resolute and defiant – culminating in a 4-piece instrumental movement that would seem out of place on any other album, yet wraps up undun beautifully. Beginning with the Sufjan Stevens piano-led “Redford” (not since Bon Iver worked with Kanye West has such an unlikely-yet-compatible combination occurred) and into the bittersweet strings on the aptly titled “Possibility”, the album’s final tones end with discord in ?uestlove’s shining drums on “Will to Power”. This gives way to softness in the strings on “Finality”. Then, the softness is betrayed by the final note of the album- a defiant chord played which slowly dies, until it is no more.
The Roots are known for crossover success and integrating a wide array of genres and influences into their art, and this album is no exception. What makes this album exceptional, however, is the way they have taken intense themes and topics, yet blended them delicately into an album that any music fan will find remarkable. It is the rare piece of music that can speak to many, yet speak to one. The Roots have created a beautiful, heartbreaking album that accomplishes just that.
THE ROOTS - undun