In Rotation: The Roots' 'Undun'
A series in Sunday Calendar about what Times writers & contributors are listening to right now...
If the Roots ever decide to slow down, one of them should write a business book, because over the course of their varied and inspired musical life, the East Coast hip-hop band has gradually and impressively built a career unmatched in the realm of popular music, let alone rap. From its rise as the go-to live rap act to its career as a backing unit for singers and rappers such as Jay-Z, John Legend and Betty Wright, to its current pop culture peak as the house band on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” the Roots have not only survived but prevailed.
More impressively, the Roots have stayed vital over 25 years, and the evidence lies in their 10th studio recording, “Undun,” a rolling concept album whose central character is based on the protagonist within indie pop singer Sufjan Stevens’ song “Redmond,” which the Roots cover on the new record. Long committed to pushing at the edges of the relatively conservative major-label hip-hop offerings, the Roots draw from not only the loop-based world of commercial rap, but understand — and honor — the more far-reaching connections on “Undun.” From the weird quiet rhythms of the opener, “Sleep,” to the hard rock funk of “Kool On,” whose backing track and guitar sounds suggest Jimi Hendrix’s work with Band of Gypsies, the band’s chops are as tight and solid as ever.
Elsewhere, soft piano and a string quartet introduce the odd and occasionally cacophonous three-song suite that closes the album. Combined, “Undun” shows a band at the top of its game continuing to forge new directions in hip-hop. If only younger artists would take their lead.
— Randall Roberts