The Roots may be best known in the mainstream for their nightly gig as the house band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and through the years they’ve justifiably become attached to an extrordinary live show. Now, though, they’ve returned to the studio for their latest retail release, undun, where they take a new approach: a concept album, with the storytelling in reverse order.
Recounting the first-person tale of Redford Stephens, a hustler who didn’t make it past 25, the Philly based band begins the record with his death, and tracks the tale backward, as the album’s ill-fated protagonist faces the street life and its often inescapable woes. The crew beautifully arranges harmonic strings, gloomy keys and sturdy drums with seamlessly implemented guest spots from the likes of Big K.R.I.T., Phonte, Dice Raw and Bilal, as questions of fate and free will persist; how much of Redford’s story was already determined due to the circumstances under which he was born?
Multiple voices converging to tell one story results in a far more interconnected listen than it probably should, but this oddity is part of what’s so great about undun. It’s a bit unorthodox but magnificent sonically, as well, as five of the 14 tracks don’t have vocals: the opener, as well as the last four. This allows the necessary means to ease in and out of a heavy album, giving an opportunity to soak in the track-by-track events and story as a whole.
Each song seeps smoothly into the next; most are able to stand on their own, but shine when reinforced by what precedes and follows. A concept album with an equally heavy focus on musicianship and rhymes, undun fantastically transports into the tragic narrative. —Adam Fleischer