The Roots have inspired intrigue among the hip-hop and neo-soul congregations for more than two decades through their masterful use of live music — something nearly extinct in rap — and the gritty, realistic scenes they’ve come to be known for. On their latest album, undun, these qualities are on display for all to see, channeling the sorrow and fight for survival that can only be found in the U.S.’s underbelly.
Telling the fictional story of Redford Stephens, a repentant drug dealer trapped in the hustle, undun is a concept album evocative enough to transport any listener, whether from Compton or Ann Arbor, into the hard-nosed life of an inner-city pusher.
The Philadelphia-bred Roots are the brainchild of Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter. Though there has been a revolving door of members, the two founders embody the bold creativity and incisive commentary The Roots are famous for. Never a group to fall into tired rap “gangsters and Glocks” tropes, they have made a profitable and prolific career without having to cater to the lowest common denominator. Rather, The Roots hang their hats on intelligent songs that chronicle the all-too-real struggle occurring everyday in inner cities across the U.S. and the world.
What makes the already-phenomenal undun even more admirable is the timeframe in which The Roots created it. Over the past two years, their visibility has increased exponentially by playing weekly shows in New York City, being Jimmy Fallon’s house band and using their late night platform to imply that Michele Bachmann is a “lyin’ ass bitch.” But instead of taking the easy way out and cashing in on their surging exposure, they remained true to their roots (pun definitely intended) and crafted a delicate portrait of a desperate man on the fringes of society.
What often gets lost when discussing inner-city crime is that criminals are not simply statistics, but living, breathing humans, and that’s precisely the message the Roots somberly convey in every track. Tracing the life of the ill-fated Stephens’s drug pedaling career, undun is unorthodox in that it travels backward. The opening instrumental track, “Dun,” acts as Stephens’s death rattle and is followed by “Sleep,” a dying message replete with haunting, music box-esque instrumentals and regretful lyrics.
The meat of the album is comprised of expansive, foreboding gems that flow into each other seamlessly, though the entire timeline is backward. On “Make My,” Stephens sees the follies of his ways, admitting, “They told me the ends / Won’t justify the means” over a funky, bass-driven beat. He’s the perfect example of an antihero, at least in his own eyes, as it seems he had no choice but to plunder, pillage and kill on the streets. Though the life of Redford Stephens follows the familiar murder-by-numbers outline that anyone who has ever watched “Boyz ’N the Hood” knows by heart, The Roots are able to put a human face on what is usually nameless.
Curiously, the most fascinating tracks on undun are the last four, which are all instrumental. Each one represents a different aspect of Stephens’s pre-crime years, and with names like “Possibility” and “Finality,” the vagueness inspires reflection and helps to humanize the outlaw world of drug dealing. There is no glorification of violence or vice here, just a reminder that at one point, even the most ruthless criminal had a soul.
Redford Stephens’s sorrow is palpable and capable of making listeners pray for the fictional man’s soul. Undoubtedly, he made a host of bad choices and his self-aware ruminations about people he hurt may be nothing more than a save-my-soul deathbed conversion, but it’s hard not to feel for the guy. Even more striking though, is that The Roots are able to evoke such emotion for a character whose life is contained within a 40-minute album. That is what makes undun a transcendent rap album.