Review of The Roots ‘Undun’
Since their first release in 1993, The Roots have served as the model of consistency in not only hip-hop but music in general. The groups rare blend of wildly talented musicians and the deep, perseptive words of Tariq Trotter also known as Black Thought have made the group in any hip-hop head’s iTunes library. With their 13th studio album Undun, The Roots crew have once again lived up to their lofty reputation. Unlike any previous release from the band, Undun is a concept album that follows Redford Stephens a young man, growing up in the harsh streets and one who must deal with all the ills that come with living in such an environment. The album is a reflective and honest view of someone, who like all of us has made mistakes. Black Thought along with several other rappers who make appearances on the album address the mistakes and cheifly important take responsibility for them. So let’s get into the album.
1. The Un
The intro to the album although brief, brilliantly sets the foundation for the album to the listener. ‘The Un’ sounds a lot like a looped up version of ‘A Piece of Light’ which is the intro from the band’s previous album How I Got Over. It begins with a flat line, suggesting that the protagonist of the album Redford Stephens has died. Following the flat line is a very airy sound accompanied by faint church organs, a heartbeat and an overall eerie vibe. A vibe that almost gives the feeling of crossing to the other side, from this life on to whatever might come next.
2. Sleep (feat. Aaron Livingston)
The first track of the album is the first step in the vision of the album. Over a simple beat that sounds like it could’ve been made with a percussion kit, Black Thought offers the perspective of the now dead Redford, dealing with the fact that he consciously aware that he is dead. With lines like, “All that I am, all that I was is history/the past unraveled adding insult to this injury” Black Thought acknowledges that his character is dead, yet still understands that his death in many ways is of his own doing, adding insult to injury, that injury in this case being death.
3. Make My (feat. Big K.R.I.T)
The album continues with its only real single, ‘Make My’ a song featuring a verse from up and coming artist Big K.R.I.T and in the scheme of the album serves almost like a plea bargain on the behalf of Redford the protagonist, and I mean that in the most endearing way possible. K.R.I.T begins the track with his verse, in which he offers explanations of all of the obstacles that Redford has endured during his lifetime, and pleading (if you will) that it is his environment not he himself that is to blame for the faulty decisions he’s made, which have led to his death. “Well, in the world of night terrors it’s/hard to dream, they hollerin’ cash rules everything/Just call it cream, cause when it rises to the top you get/ the finer things”. K.R.I.T offers other one liners, “Too busy looking backward for jackers, to pump my brakes” and “I’d give it all for peace of mind, for Heaven’s sake/My heart so heavy that the ropes that hold my casket breaks/Cause everything that wasn’t for me I had to chase”. K.R.I.T’s verse more or less is meant to sympathize with. Black Thought’s verse on the other hand focuses on another angle. “See it’s really just a matter of semantics/when everybody’s fresh out of collateral to damage”. Like K.R.I.T’s verse Black Thought gives reason to why people like Redford Stephens carry out the lifestyle they carry out, but unlike K.R.I.T who uses the ills of the environment to justify his unrighteous living, Black Thought uses the environment to argue that living may not even be worth it. Black Thought takes it a step further by offering the idea of suicide to cope with the evil world he lives in, “I’m contemplating that special dedication/to whoever it concern, my letter of resignation/fading back to black, my dark coronation”.
4. One Time (feat. Phonte & Dice Raw)
One Time, with the help of Phonte and Dice Raw continues to develop the self based revelation of Redford Stephens. Phonte opens up the song with an honest look in the mirror in which he addresses not only the error in his ways, but the short-sightedness of his actions, and failure by Stephens to see the bigger picture. “If too much money talking, we make ‘em economize/real rap- no tale spinning, such is the life of Kam-i-Ka-ze pilot”. Phonte is followed by Black Thought who also offers a bit 20/20 hindsight when he says, “Not a thing I fear besides fear itself/this is clearly a lesson learned, for someone else”. Black Thought’s verse digs deeper though, he not only speaks on lessons he failed to learn, but encourages himself to be looked upon as an example of how not to live. Finally is a verse from long time Roots contributor Dice Raw who contemplates whether or not mercy exercised on someone who, as he says, is “born on the other side of the crack pipe”. Raw then digs a little deeper when he talks about how is life, though it may not have been a morally good life was one that allowed him to survive. “Niggas learn math just to understand the crack price/then dive in head first like the jack knife/Cause out here you can’t belly flop/if you wanna make the noise inside your belly stop”.
5. Kool On (feat. P.O.R.N & Truck North)
Over a soulful 70′s esque beat, Kool On is the midpoint of the album. Greg P.O.R.N opens up the song, describing a gangster dressed in expensive rags, with a woman on each arm enjoying the fruits of his lifestyle. Truck North ends the song with a verse, that like the two verses prior describe the pros Stephens’ lifestyle. If ‘Make My’ is the plea of the album, ‘Kool On’ is the scene of the album in which Redford Stephens is at the peak of his gangster lifestyle. Feeling untouchable Stephens’ sentiments are expressed in lines from Black Thought like “Holdin fast money without running out of patience/move in silence without running up in places” or “The minute before the storm is what I’m calm like/suited and booted for a shooting like it’s prom night/It’s suicide right pursuers tried like/To no avail and a heroes what they died like”. Throughout the hook of the song, the words “stars are made to shine” echo, in an effort to convey the high that Stephens was living on.
6. The Otherside (feat. Bilal & P.O.R.N)
With everything that has transpired in the album so far, you would think a song entitled The Otherside would be talking about some sort of after life, don’t worry I made that mistake as well. This song is actually a promise by Redford Stephens to succeed. The beginning of Black Thought’s verse serves as the breaking point for Stephens in which he decides basically that “it’s time to get paid”. With lines like “soaking and broken in a joke like comics is/not enough paper to paying folks compliments”, “If not for these hood inventions/I’d be just another kid from the block with no intentions”. Black Thought paints the picture of someone who sees no other outlet to not only survive but ,like K.R.I.T touched on earlier in the album, to enjoy “the finer things”. In the second verse Black makes his pledge to those who came before him and allowed themselves to be consumed by the system, that is now forcing him to turn to alternative forms of living. “Yo, we did this in remembrance of/faces from the past we no longer have an image of/carrying cold blood hearts that never been for love” Thought further expresses the feelings of someone sick and tired of being sick and tired, and suggesting that the system is geared to mentally break someone down, “Undun I am becoming/and when he’s tired of running/through the layers of the onion/he’ll probably shed a tear cause they’ll be no more fast times/just his weak mind scrolled out like a bad sign”. The final line Black Thought offers “life is only a moment in time, and it passed by” further suggest the “get it while you’re here” outlook of Redford Stephens and the promise to make it to the otherside.
7. Stomp (feat. Just Blaze & P.O.R.N)
Stomp is the rights of passage of the album. We see Redford faced with a life altering decision, one that involves him about to carry out a murder. One that will all but officially induct him into the life that eventually leads to his death. Just Blaze provides the voice in the background of the song, that serves as the motivator that repeatedly talks about ceasing a moment, and taking hold of a situation. Black Thought basks in the intensity of the song and offers the very real fact of the fine line between the murderer and the victim, “Cause you was fake and never measured up/You just a nigga on his regular/But how far am I ahead of ya?/It just as easily coulda been me instead of ya”. P.O.R.N offers a chilling verse that pretty much disregards the value of life, and simply chalking up his murderous intentions as a necessity, not specifying whether or not it’s positive or negative because really, that doesn’t matter.
8. Lighthouse (feat. Dice Raw)
In ‘Lighthouse’ Dice Raw and Black Thought offer sentiments of self disgust, and being alone in the world. The idea that he recognizes the error in his murderous ways, but doesn’t really care. Well, not that he doesn’t care, but they he doesn’t want to deal with it. He knows he will have to eventually, but for now he’d rather suppress it and try to move on. Black Thought offers a line that expresses this idea. The idea that the error within himself is a result of an error in the world, yet still deciding not to look within to solve the problem. “I’m never paying up on my debt or tolls either/I’ll leave the memories here I won’t need them”.
9. I Remember
Maybe the darkest track on the album. On this track Black Thought again gives insight into the mind of Redford Stephens who at this point in the album, has grown somewhat depressed, when he reflects on life. He comes to the realization of how hopeless his chances of rising above have been from the beginning. “Another hopeless story never read at all/I’m better off looking for the end, where the credits are”. Reflecting on fallen friends, and the reoccurring day-to-day that has made him grown ashamed of the face he sees in the mirror. In the final verse Black Thought talks about how he has realized that whatever humanity he has left in him, has at this point turned wicked, and how he will never have true peace of mind, “It’s only human to express how you really feel/but that same humanity is my Achilles heel/a leper can’t change his spots, and never will/so I’m forever ill, now I can never chill”
10. Tip The Scale (feat. Dice Raw)
The final track where there is rapping, is also (fittingly) the only track that shows genuine signs of remorse in Redford Stephens. So far in the album Stephens has addressed all of his problems without really offering a solution, hint that he’s actually learned his lesson. Black Thought’s verse doesn’t really express the regretful sentiment, as his verse pretty much just ties everything together, and acknowledges that his lifestyle is the kind that results in really one thing. Dice Raw’s verse however expresses the idea that what he did was wrong and that he is ready to break the cycle.
11. Redford (feat. Yia Yia & Pappou)
This track along with the final three is instrumental. This track which we can imagine is now looking over Redford, who is now dead and whose fate can only be decided by God. A haunting piano, accompanied by a very faint background vocalist set the mood for this reflective track.
12. Possibility (2nd Movement)
Still using the piano, but this time accompanied by violins rather than a voice. The violins serve as a soothing reassurance that despite the ills carried out by Redford, everything will be okay. This track as is its title encourages the listener to contemplate Redford’s possible fate, and whether or not he should be judged favorably or unfavorably.
13. Will To Power (3rd Movement)
The only word to describe this track is chaos. Because it follows what was a very peaceful moment, you can guess that this is the actual judgment. The once soothing piano, is drowned out by overpowering drums and percussion that would suggests the struggle that Redford has brought upon himself with the way he has lived his life.
14. Finality (4th Movement)
Following the chaos, comes another spurt of peace. Judging by the track title however, one can assume that this peace will indeed be final. This track really ties the entire album together and suggests that salvation is in reach of anyone willing to be honest with themselves, and find the error in their ways. The violin melody that we heard in ‘Possibility’ returns on this track, but this time in a higher octave possibly suggesting that Redford like the active has gone up as well.
On a personal note, I was really impressed with Undun because it really could have gone horribly wrong. A concept album takes an incredible amount of focus, and when a band is doing such an album everyone truly must be on the same page. If any hip-hop band was going to do it though, it had to be The Roots. This album is an excellent listen, and won’t consume too much of your day as it is barely 40 minutes long.