December 6, 2011 at 8:47 am #377536
Has anyone here listened to the album? It’s truly exceptional. The Roots have become the most incredibly group working today (hip-hop), and this might be one of their best albums yet. It has an 91 on Metacritic so far, with 13 reviews, and even if it drops a bit, it’ll likely end up being one of the more acclaimed The Roots albums, which it’s no easy feat.
My favorite tracks are “Make My”, “The OtherSide” and “Stomp”, but the whole album flows in a beautiful bleak way. Certainly of the year’s best releases, and it would’ve made a few best of the year lists had it been released a bit earlier.
Here’s a (short) Chicago Tribune rave from Greg Kot:
4 stars (out of 4)
The Roots have been so good for so long (two decades) that it’s perhaps easy to take them for granted. The Philadelphia octet is higher profile than ever as the house band for the “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” TV talk show, but somehow its excellent 2010 album, “How I Got Over,” was overlooked. The same mistake shouldn’t be made with “Undun” (Def Jam), the 10th and best full-length studio album of the group’s career.
Over 14 tracks and 38 filler-free minutes, the album traces the birth, cold-sweat life and early death of a street hustler, consumed by paranoia, crack and unfulfilled dreams. The tightly wound narrative is a familiar tale animated by its sharp turns of phrase, coal-grey images, and, most of all, its evocative music. In a way, “Undun” sounds like a continuation of the brooding first half of “How I Got Over.” On the 2010 album, redemption eventually arrived. Here, there’s no way out except in a casket, and the music underlines the tragedy: the episodic horn riffs of the haunted “Sleep,” keyboards that chime like bells in “Make My” and slam with percussive force on “One Time,” the kick-drum thunder of “Stomp,” the rock-gospel feel of “The OtherSide.” At times, the music evokes a church service or the eerie stillness of a funeral parlor, as if the semi-autobiographical character at the center of the story, Redford Stephens, were already dead.
Questlove Thompson’s beats come hard as a clenched fist, softened by pleading voices and the wrenching narratives of Black Thought, one of hip-hop’s most underrated voices. He’s a philosopher as much as an MC in that he welcomes struggle, the notion that sometimes his protagonists don’t have all the answers and feel trapped, lost, dead tired, desperate. “There I go from a man to a memory,” he muses. “Damn, I wonder if my fam will remember me?”
A gorgeous neo-classical suite closes the album. The band riffs on Sufjan Stevens’ “Michigan” instrumental, tears it apart, and then pieces it back together for a heart-breaking string coda. An emphatic piano chord brings the lid down on Redford’s coffin. If an album can be both chilling and beautiful at once, “Undun” is it.December 6, 2011 at 9:09 am #377538
Here’s a interview that ?uestlove gave SPIN a couple of weeks ago about the general concept of the album and the Surfjan Stevend influence on it:
?uestlove Explains How SPIN and Surfjan Inspired the Roots’ “undun”
On December 6, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon house band, Philadelphia-bred hip-hop vets the Roots, will release undun, their 13th studio release and first concept album. We rang ?uestlove at 30 Rock, where he was hiding out in zoologist Jeff Musial‘s dressing room between rehearsals, to find out what the heck this album is actually about.
Tell us about undun. Why do a conceptual LP now?
It’s funny: Back when SPIN chose the Top 20 records of 1999, there were only a few hip-hop entries and Goodie Mobb’s World Party and Prince Paul’s A Prince Among Thieves were among them. Being the obsessive quasi journalist that I am, I went out and listened to those records and dissected each one. I was pleasantly surprised by A Prince Among Thieves. It’s a concept album with a narrative about a young man and his struggle in life. It has always sat in the back of my mind — I knew one day I would like to try that idea out. So, here we are 13 years later.
How does the story on undun unfold?
It’s basically a tale about someone who makes one decision that completely undoes their entire life. And we tell the story backwards, so when you hear the record it starts at the very end of this character’s life. We wanted to tell a cautionary tale but didn’t want to do the cliché tale of a ‘hood kid who does the wrong shit and then just dies.
So who, exactly, is the protagonist Redford Stephens?
Well, the album’s name is inspired by the Guess Who song “undun.” But we named the character after the Sufjan Stevens song “Redford” from his Michigan record. We imagined Redford as being like Avon Barksdale from The Wire. He’s a good guy who could have just gone to college and been a great engineer or something. But he makes a bad decision and pays for it. We tell that story in 10 songs, under 44 minutes. Actually, Sufjan makes an appearance on the album, too.
We’ve always loved the song “Redford” from Michigan. So we close the new album with a cover of “Redford.” We stretched it out into this four-part movement. Part 1 is Sufjan at the piano performing it. And then Part 2 is a string quartet that we had interpret it. Part 3 is myself and D.D. Jackson, who is an avant-garde piano player. He’s probably one of the most dangerous pianists — I don’t know how he doesn’t have carpal tunnel now. But he just destroys, literally, destroys the piano. The final movement, which ends the record, is essentially the beginning of the story. But it’s the last thing you hear. It’s a very powerful piece of work. Dare I say that undun is probably as good as it’s going to get for the Roots. Our songwriting can’t get better. Our production can’t get better. I hate to sound like Kanye, like “This is the best…” But as a music consumer, I always make records that I would like to purchase.
You’ve probably witnessed similar stories in real life many times.
Oh yeah. Redford is definitely compiled of five or six people that we’ve known from Philadelphia. [Rapper] Tariq’s [Trotter, a.k.a. Black Thought] entire family, his cousin and brothers, have literally all been this guy. Tariq is the only one that has escaped the fate that most of his family have encountered. The narrative definitely hits home with him more than any other member of the band.
How has working on Late Night helped shape this record?
Being at 30 Rock enables us to do something that’s never happened in the history of the Roots. It gives us a lot of down time to practice and hone our skills. That’s what they pay us to do. They pay us to write short, concise songs, even if they don’t get used on air. We have to create three to seven songs every day. It’s like going to school all over again. You learn by dissecting the music — it’s like, “Okay, let’s get to the point right here and by the second line we should get to the chorus.” We’ve never truly paid attention to the craft of songwriting until we came to 30 Rock. I consider all the records between Organix! and How I Got Over jam-based records. We wrote them on tour during the soundchecks. But until we got to 30 Rock we never worked on the song. Before we just worked on the jam. This is our 13th record, but I feel like it’s our 2nd.
How does udun sound musically? It’s more orchestral?
Yeah. And it has more of a community feel because in our heads undun is a play or a movie. Since it’s a narrative we invited more outside musicians to contribute. I’ve been doing some orchestral work in Philadelphia. I got the chance to curate this program called Philly-Paris Lockdown, which essentially tells the story of when the Roots were trapped in Paris for like two weeks with no money. We had just started this European tour and a gig got cancelled, and then another gig got cancelled and we were trapped in Paris, living on very little money in prostitute hotels. I was asked to curate this impressionistic jazz-fusion concept piece in April of this year. It was me and members of Dirty Projects and avant-garde musicians like David Murray and D.D. Jackson, and a few orchestral string people. That’s when we started undun and I definitely knew I wanted that feeling on the record. Maybe on next album we’ll go all out and do a full-blown orchestra.
Has working on Late Night changed the way you view the music industry? Do you have any interest in working in the traditional business model again?
The other night I played the record for Harry Allen, Public Enemy’s former media assassin and a very well respected writer. He said that undun was one of the boldest things he’d ever heard before. I was telling him how people always start off with the negative. I saw the Stereogum story, like, “Seeing the Roots play onFallon is like seeing Miles Davis play in the subway for change.” There’s always two ways to see the situation. I knew people were going to underestimate us. I knew they’d instantly say it was uncool for incredible musicians to play on a late night comedy show. But I looked at the benefits.
There are probably many…
Yeah. The first was that we could finally follow all those crazy ideas that we’ve had without fear of being dropped by our label. Most people in hip-hop do what they do to survive. They’re thinking about paying their bills. They don’t really have any other options. If Joni Mitchell leaves her label she can go to the countryside and paint. Or Beck can do his photography stuff. But a lot of hip-hoppers don’t have other options. If you get dropped, then it’s a hurt piece. Now we have a safety net. Our Def Jam life is now an evening job. We now have the comfort and confidence to start making the albums we want to make. That’s why undun feels like our second album. There’s no pressure. It’s like, “What if we get dropped?” Well, money’s not a problem anymore. We make way more money now than before. We can treat music as a passion as opposed to a survival thing. You’ll really hear the difference on undunDecember 6, 2011 at 11:25 pm #377539
I am a Roots fanatic and imo Undun is their best album yet. Definitely the best album this year. I have not been able to listen to anything else after this. A game-changer as far as hip-hop is concerned. It deserves a good and thorough couple of listens.December 7, 2011 at 12:31 pm #377540
My favorite is still Things Fall Apart, but this one it’s on its way to become a big favorite too. I also think this is one of best albims of the year, and I continue to be amazed at how rich and subtly varied and layered their music is. It’s quite impressive how they keep up with it year after year.December 7, 2011 at 1:14 pm #377541
I love, love The Roots. I will check this one out. I had no idea they had an album out.December 7, 2011 at 1:48 pm #377542
I love The Roots. Phrenology remains one of my favourite albums of all time. Most of their albums always rank on my end of year top ten (Game Theory, How I Got Over, etc.). I’ve been seeing the reviews for this trickle in and they have been very positive. Can’t wait to give it a listen…whenever that will be.