In the extensive liner notes to 1999’s Things Fall Apart, Roots drummer and spokesperson ?uestlove bemoaned the term “alternative rap,” noting that it was code for ‘no skills.’ And once upon a time, The Roots may have very well been on the receiving end of the term for no reason other than their tendency toward jazz-inflected full band arrangements. To some degree, the group has always represented a more nuanced and exploratory form of hip-hop, but in the past decade in particular, they’ve taken more stylistic detours than their earlier, laid-back grooves might have suggested. With 2002’s Phrenology, the Philadelphia hip-hop outfit recorded an album best described as ‘prog-rap,’ while pursuing darker, more aggressive sounds on 2006’s Game Theory. They even left some ‘alternative rap’ bait on 2010’s How I Got Over, which incorporated sections of songs by Monsters of Folk and Joanna Newsom, while also featuring guest vocals by members of Dirty Projectors.
Yet that kind of versatility is exactly what led the band to become the house band for “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.” Funny thing about the Roots, though, is that in spite of being presented to a wider, mainstream audience nightly, in that time they’ve taken even greater risks on their albums. With tenth album undun, the legendary Roots crew pursues a dramatically more ambitious agenda than on its predecessor, having crafted a concept album about one Redford Stephens, whose inspiration came from the title of a Sufjan Stevens song, of all things. The fictional Stephens is an inner-city New Yorker who turns to crime and ends up dying, in his mid-twenties, in 1999 (the details of which can be explored on an app developed in conjunction with the album). Oh, and his story is told backward.
Weirdly abstract as this all probably looks on paper, undun actually doesn’t flow that differently than a typical Roots album. Introductory ambient track “Dun” presents the listener with the sounds of Stephens’ final rest – a flatlining EKG, otherworldly hums and moans, and a final closing scream. This, then, bleeds into the elegiac “Sleep,” a melancholy rumination on Stephens’ final moments, with emcee Black Thought sneering the opening line, “To catch a thief/ who stole the soul I pray to keep,” only to change his tone into a heartbreaking “I wonder if my fam will remember me.” This oddly somber meditation, even by Roots standards, is gorgeously skeletal, but it manages to transition seamlessly into the more soulful “Make My,” which features Big K.R.I.T. stealing the spotlight via lines such as, “My heart so heavy/ hope it don’t break the casket.”
Remarkably, while undun remains conceptually bound, it’s a concise and accessible record overall, spanning less than 40 minutes and boasting more individual standout tracks than is typical for an album with an overarching narrative. The group hits a hard groove in the album’s midsection, pounding out a piano-heavy hook in “One Time,” easing into some chill funk in “Kool On,” and laying down a stark juxtaposition between melancholy keys and high-impact beats on “The OtherSide.” At times, though the group stays on point musically, the plot behind the album’s central conceit becomes a bit obscured, expressed more via mood, metaphors and allegorical references to, for instance, Hammurabi than any specific people are places. But the gravity behind the story of a character like Stephens remains, particularly in a highlight like “Tip the Scale,” in which Dice Raw rhetorically posits, “Lotta niggas go to prison/ how many come out Malcolm X?”
That The Roots don’t bludgeon their listeners with overwrought “message” songs, and instead rely on an artful retelling of an all-too-common but unfortunate reality, is ultimately what makes the album a success. It’s not the group’s most commercial album by any means, yet nor is it their least approachable. To create a balance of vision and groove this harmonious takes a kind of creativity and discipline that The Roots have finely honed over nearly two decades. No skills? Please.
Video: The Roots – “Make My”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.