The Roots have always been one of my favorite groups of all time. I can remember the first album I’ve ever listen to from them was Things Fall Apart in the seventh grade. My older step brother was who put me on to them and told me in his words “stop listening to that garbage on the radio all the time.” Before The Roots, I was still in the typical mainstream listener mind frame. I was young and didn’t know any better. It was this album and the Reflection Eternal’s Train of Thought albums that changed my viewpoint of hip hop. The Roots made me realize that sometimes the best music is best being searched for and won’t be played on your local radio station. You’re going to have to invest some quality time and attention to anything The Roots put out. This didn’t change with Undun, the band’s latest offering, the 13th studio album since they hit the scene in the early 1990s.
Undun is a concept album following the life of the character Redford Stephens. One must question the decision to create a concept album in 2011, the era of microwavable music, where most listeners will simply purchase the tracks that sound good to them on iTunes or listen to the tracks out of order on a streaming music services. The Roots continue to be the hip hop band that isn’t so typical and challenges the listeners to pay attention to the music, or get lost in the transition.
Although there isn’t exactly a format of an introduction and ending to the Redford Stephens story, The Roots do a great job of making sure each song stands out and doesn’t get reduced to “background noise” (a la work music). There are some beautiful instrumental tracks toward the end that almost sound like music you’d hear between segments on NPR. Before that, you get The Roots as you know them. The usual players like Dice Raw, Truck North and Greg Porn make appearances, as well as folks like Bilal Oliver, who blesses “The Otherside” with a familiar Baby Huey-esque wail that accentuates and doesn’t overbear. Phonte spits with Black Thought and Dice over the plodding piano on “One Time”, a track that’s almost instantly likable. Black Thought continues to be who I feel might be the most underrated emcee of all time and he demonstrates that throughout the entirety of this LP. While many of the tracks stand on their own, the entire picture is drawn when one listens to it in order, even as the songs vary in texture and don’t immediately seem to go together until you get to the end.
If you are a fan of The Roots, it’s no question that this is an album you have to pick up. I will say that it does take a while to get a feel for this album (as does every project Roots drop). I do enjoy picking up albums that don’t hit you right away and creep up on you. If you are the kind of listener in which the music has to grab your attention right away, then this album isn’t for you. If you are looking for music of substance to break up the monotony of your playlist, then this is something I feel you can enjoy. I listen to plenty of nonsensical music, but I enjoy artists such as The Roots who push the envelope. They keep the landscape of hip hop varied and that’s all that I ask.