Album review: The Roots' 'undun'
The Roots’ latest studio album is an artful melding of experimental jazz, ’70s R&B, guitar rock flourishes, wall-shattering beats and rhymes that take a scalpel to the existential angst of the hip-hop generation. It’s both bleak and unexpectedly beautiful.
It’s a tale told in reverse, narrated postmortem by its 25-year-old protagonist, Redford Stephens. The CD starts with his death (“There I go, from a man to a memory / Damn, I wonder if my fam will remember me…”) and moves backward through his ill-fated young life. One of “undun’s” greatest strengths is its use of guest artists; the varied styles of rappers and singers including Phonte, Dice Raw, Bilal Oliver, Truck North and Big K.R.I.T. represent the tangled layers of Stephens’ thoughts — the criminal minded, the philosophical and the places where those two personalities collide.
The multiple voices also function as something of a Greek chorus as Stephens wrestles with questions of fate, free will and destiny in the ’hood where he both lives and hustles. The result is a psychological depth and complexity rarely afforded black folks in modern pop culture, including (or especially) the borough of contemporary hip-hop.
The brilliance of this CD trumps the controversy around the band’s musical dis of Rep. Michele Bachmann during her recent appearance on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.” Note to the Roots’ Questlove: don’t telegraph all your moves on Twitter and let the music do the talking. ”Undun” says it all.
Island Def Jam
Three and a half stars (Out of four)
–- Ernest Hardy