Undun – The Roots, 2011

I’ve been meaning to go back a little and give you reason to pull an older slightly-neglected album off the shelves again, but new music has been so good lately!  Undun is the record I can’t get enough of right now, and I want to offer it up as an alternative to Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as an album that attempts to push rap music in a new direction.  The Roots, however, are able to do so far more narratively and positively on Undun, which focuses on a man – Redford Stevens – who dies at the beginning of the album, and everything we hear after that looks back to what led up to that particular moment.  And that’s about as much pre-amble as I want to give you, because something tells me Undun is the kind of thing that we’ll enjoy as we discover new things each time we listen.

The first thing I notice, before I even hit play, is the album art depicting a kid “flipping in the ghetto on a dirty mattress” as Lauryn Hill so eloquently describes.  Like any great rap album, Undun is full of reference, even in its few, but intentional visuals.  The first track, “Dun”, builds (or fades out backwards-ly) sonically toward the first full song, “Sleep”: stunning in its short and slow depiction of Redford looking on his own death through incredibly poetic rap.  Similarly, “Make My” is Redford’s coming to terms with his near-approaching life’s end.  This song is so beautiful, and strikes me as brutally honest in its ability to realistically capture someone’s final song or word.  As conceptual as Undun is, I can’t get over how catchy the music is throughout.  The Roots are relatively un-rivalled in the arena of instrumental hip-hop (heck, they created it), and prove they are still on top.  The bass line from “Make My”slips and slides around everywhere, and “One Time” is driven forward by percussive piano chords that, although with a low bpm, force physical movement out of its listener.

“Kool On” introduces a completely different beat with one of the slickest transitions I can remember – and it’s just a fade in!  And let’s face it, using an old-school vocal line as a rhythmic beat is so awesome right now, whether it’s on Watch the Throne or not.  This and the next, “The OtherSide” is the closest track to a dance groove that you’ll find on the album, but they are not really for dancing at all since they are gritty looks at a life of chasing drugs and money.  Greg Porn has some of the most direct and simple phrases, like “I’m on the edge of my bed making love to my meds”.  
I keep thinking that the worst must be over; Redford is dead, so eventually we’ll get to some happy memories, right?  On the contrary, it seems like his death is the most peaceful moment on the album, and “Stomp” definitely intensifies things, and gets the physicality of life, viscerally describing “blood sweat and tears, broken teeth and spit”.  “Lighthouse” continues that theme as guest rapper Dice Raw asks us to “take a look at my lungs and my liver – it’s disgusting”.  Again, the rawness of the story is never abandoned in the midst of thoughtful and catchy hooks that can be played anywhere.  I have cooked and cleaned and just chilled out to this record, and it all works.  
“I Remember” suggests that Redford never really had a chance, drawing “a two from the deck” and continues to be fairly aware that death is not too far off.  “Tip the Scale” is the last track that gives us any lyrics, and I suppose it can be seen as the beginning of the end in multiple ways.  It reveals either a real or felt decision he is making between a friend’s life and his own.  Knowing the end outcome gives this song even more dramatic weight.  And we are left to contemplate the short life of a thug over Sufjan Stevens’ “Redford (for Yia Yia & Pappou)”, and its 3 variations in the form of movements.  Each take a very different approach while holding a recognizable piece of Sufjan’s original: “Possibility” is high and dream-like, “Will to Power” is is dark and jazzy, and ends with chaotic chordal clusters, and finally “Finality” feels much like a string quartet at a funeral, yet ends with a low hammer on the piano.  
Undun allowed us to peer into a common character’s last bits of life, but Redford’s stereotypical thug-like behaviour never distracted me from his humanity.  Nothing about this album felt like every other rap about money, drugs, sex, and death.  It was neither braggy nor preachy, yet honestly looked at nothing less than the meaning of life, and I’m left wanting to have another listen.  Don’t mind if I do…  
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