"Undun" by The Roots

The Roots
Undun

Island Def Jam Music Group
2011

Review

For all the hype and gimmickry of the "concept album" I find that it's difficult to create one that is listenable. Prince Paul's "A Prince Among Thieves" fell back on too many skits rather than simply telling the story through the music itself. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Deltron 3030 is entirely made up of music but it doesn't really tell a single cohesive story. It's more a series of narratives set in the conceptual world of the future. So when The Roots announced that they were working on a concept album, I was skeptical. Would they go the (tired) route of using skits to tell their story? Well, I am pleased to say that there are no skits on this album (unless you count the instrumental suite at the end of the album, but that's more like a coda) and that it is entirely listenable. Making a concept album that is still an album is tough to do, and The Roots have done it.

The thing is, even if you didn't know that this album was a concept album, I'm not sure you would have noticed. It's subtle in that the conceptual part of the album is really a framework to base the songs around. There's definitely a narrative arc, but it doesn't come at the expensive of just making good songs that can stand on their own; these songs are not like the songs in a musical where the lyrics only serve to propel the narrative.

That narrative is about the life and times of a fictional character who struggles through poverty. It starts at the end of his life and works it's way back to the beginning.

As for the music itself, I remarked on my review of their last album that The Roots sounded tighter than ever and attributed it to their daily regimen as Jimmy Fallon's house band. Here they seem to have really transcended the trappings of the Hip-Hop genre to push their bounds lyrically where - if not for the raps themselves - you might think you were listening to a Rock record. Thankfully the raps are still as amazing as you would expect from Black Thought. While I liked many of the quest appearances (especially that of Mr. Phonte Coleman) I really could have gone without them. Black Thought is amazing on his own to where he really doesn't need the guest MC spots. Hence my favorite moments are those with 'thought at the front and center. That said, the guest spots aren't horrible, I guess I just want more 'thought.

This does pick up right where they left off deftly fusing neo-soul, rock, and of course Hip-Hop. Because of its subject manner, the album is a bit of a downer (think Marvin Gaye on "Mercy Mercy Me") in that great tradition of classic Soul records. That said, if you are a fan of Hip-Hop and classic Soul, meet the latest album in your heavy rotation list.

4.667 out of 5

Track Ratings

1. Dun (01:17)
2. Sleep (02:16) 4
3. Make My (feat. Big K.R.I.T. & Dice Raw) (04:28) 5
4. One Time (feat. Phonte & Dice Raw) (03:56) 5
5. Kool On (feat. Greg Porn & Truck North) (04:15) 5
6. The Otherside (feat. Bilal Oliver & Greg Porn) (04:29) 5
7. Stomp (feat. Greg Porn) (02:49) 4
8. Lighthouse (feat. Dice Raw) (04:10) 5
9. I Remember (03:41) 5
10. Tip the Scale (feat. Dice Raw) (04:44) 4
11. Redford Suite: Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou) (02:18)
12. Redford Suite: Possibility (2nd Movement) (01:21)
13. Redford Suite: Will to Power (3rd Movement) (01:30)
14. Redford Suite: Finality (4th Movement) (01:57)