The Roots: undun

The Roots
Def Jam

undun is a deceptively tough nut to crack. On its surface, undun feels like another step in the mature, indie-oriented direction the Legendary Roots Crew set their sights on with last year’s How I Got Over. The production is full of pianos, somewhat abstract Radiohead-like interludes and soul hooks from longtime associates Dice Raw and Bilal. Aside from a few tracks, it’s a notably subdued album, particularly during its opening and closing sections. But when you start to approach on its intended level, as a story album about a deceased 25-year-old Philadelphia man named Redford Stephens (a name that alludes to the band’s affection for Sufjan Steven’s Michigan album), things start to get a little muddled.

For starters, liner notes were eschewed in favor of interviews and an iPad app. The app — which I admit not being privy to due to a lack of the proper technology (it also works on iPhones and iPod Touches, neither of which were in my possession over the weekend) — contains a series of photos, music videos and interviews that act as a biography of sorts for Redford. That content acts as a bridge for the listener between the ideas the band threw around in the studio and what led up to their decision to tell this story, sort of like featurettes that might accompany a DVD to better explain side plots and background narrative. Without this information, undun becomes a uniquely challenging release thanks to the band’s decision to tell Redford’s story in reverse, from death to the beginning of his ending.

Prince Paul’s A Prince Among Thieves started with the death of it’s main character Tariq, but followed with a chronological story of how he arrived there. The Roots have decided to Memento the experience, doing everything backward. They’ve also stipulated that every voice on the record is inside Redford’s head, delivering different interpretations of the events and ideas leading to his death much as a person’s brain plays against itself. But what’s really interesting, to me, is what happens when you play the album itself backwards, essentially forcing the story to play chronologically. In both formats, the album begins with the protagonist asleep, on one end a physical death (“Redford Suite”) and on the other metaphorical (“Dun”). In either format, “Lighthouse” and “The OtherSide” act as guiding lights for the character; in reverse, “Lighthouse” finds Redford adrift in the ocean of urbanity, anticipating his demise with “The OtherSide” revealing his welcoming attitude towards death (a theme throughout the record).

If heard according to the tracklist, the inversion of these concepts makes equal sense, with Redford wondering what the worth of life is before finding himself facing an appraisal soon after. Many of the songs work this way, playing dual roles depending on what order you choose to experience them, and it makes for a really interesting album. The best expression of this duality is in the “Redford Suite”, which can be heard as either: A) Redford’s soul leaving his body and ascending / descending (the third and fourth movements seemingly leave this up to the listener to decide) to its destined spiritual resting place or B) the tumultuous nature of Redford’s dreams, from which he awakens to the daily stress of having two brothers, one dead and one incarcerated who anticipates Redford’s joining him soon.

Conceptually, this album is full of exciting ideas musically and lyrically even if its core isn’t far removed from Masta Ace’s seminal A Long Hot Summer. But in can also be a tough nut to crack. Maybe tougher than it deserves to be. Because the songs are often more thematic than structural, it’s challenging to completely follow the Roots’ train of thought and see undun as any kind of linear storyline. The skeleton is there, but over more than a dozen listens I have to admit I feel like I get the same experience either way I listen to the album. If it weren’t for ?uestlove’s outline on the Okayplayer forum or the press coverage emphasizing its novella nature, it would be easy to hear undun as simply another Roots album. Progressive in sound as all Roots albums are, but just another album nonetheless.

And in that sense undun is in some ways a step back from How I Got Over, as Dice Raw is given even more hook duty here and either provides just enough chutzpah to see the song through (“Lighthouse”, “Tip the Scale”) or nearly butchers it (“One Time”). The hooks in general are a bit of a struggle to get through, as “I Remember” isn’t much better with its anonymous female vocal echoing dully many times throughout the brief three-minute track where a Gary Porn verse or more of ?uest and Khari Mateen’s quite beautiful instrumental could have been. Casting every artist on the album as Redford Stephens also lends to its immediate inaccessibility as a concept, being that their voices sound so different and the subject matter so interchangeable. Especially with the brief, Illmatic-matching runtime, undun sprints through its motions so quickly that it could easily be interpreted as an EP addendum to How I Got Over by those unwilling to put in the time necessary to connect all of Redford’s various dots through the lyrics and iPad app.

To undun‘s sizable credit, however, these gripes have a comforting ability to sink into the greater whole of the album. My personal favorite way to experience this album is as a playlist, with the album first played in reverse and then immediately ran back as the album proper. Redford is dreaming, awakens, makes his terrible life decision, dies and then has his final moments flash before his eyes, played back in reverse order ala Nas’ “Rewind”. I’m not sure if the Roots intended the album to be playable in this fashion but I guarantee that it most certainly is, and I’m equally certain that this is a first in hip-hop if not album making in general.

Despite its various faults undun is righteously solid, no doubt indebted to the atmospheric work of Sufjan Stevens and previous collaborators like Dirty Projectors and Jim James while maintaining that undeniable Roots edge that can only come from the drumkit of Ahmir Thompson, the vocal chords of Tariq Trotter and the more than capable limbs of their six cohorts. Particularly striking for ?uest is his free jazz duet with D.D. Jackson on piano, “Will to Power”, a move that I’m not sure ?uest would have felt free to explore just a few years ago. The Roots certainly aren’t the band that made Illadelph Halflife, Things Fall Apart or even Game Theory anymore, but it’s immeasurably refreshing to know that they don’t have to be. Their sampling of Radiohead on Game Theory has led to them being championed as a sort of hip-hop parallel to the group in the years since, but it’s undun that truly signals the Roots are every bit as capable of maturing with grace, pride and praise-worthy work as those consistently unpredictable rockers from Oxfordshire.

RATING 8 / 10