Hearing news that an accomplished band has plans to release a concept album can evoke either great anticipation or longing concern. We have seen great bands release masterpieces revolving around conceptual narratives: Pink Floyd’s The Wall, The Who’s Tommy, Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die. On the other hand, great bands too have faltered in trying to deliver such well-rounded artistic expression, leaving us confused and grimacing—Metallica’s new concept album featuring icon Lou Reed LULU comes to mind. However, this is not the case for the Philadelphia octet The Roots in their release of Undun, a poignant work of affection and remorse.
The Roots have established themselves in their long career with numerous multiplatinum albums, along with four Grammy awards, and as of recently, they are the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. With credentials such as these, the band could have hung up their instruments long ago and still be remembered as one of the greats in the world of Hip Hop… but The Roots never stop.
The new LP Undun is, as stated, a concept album, though it should be regarded more along the lines of an innovation. It is Hip Hop done in an entire new way in regards to songwriting. The pathos and ethos are done so beautifully and effectively that you have no choice but to sympathize with the story and American landscape prophesized. How is this? Easy, The Roots turn the notion of a concept album upside-down by starting it from the end with the death of their semi-fictional character Redford Stephens. By doing this, the listener must keep death in the back of their minds as emcee Black Thought unravels a life that could have been around. His lyrics are more truthful and raw than ever before, spoken as if they came from Redford Stephen’s own mind: “Speaking of pieces of a man/staring at future in the creases of my hand/ it reads like a final letter.” As listeners, we can do nothing but grieve for a destined demise.
The musical arrangement is more along the lines of a score to a film or play. The first track “Dun” is merely a single note, held down for a minute and a half, as if it were a flat line on a heart monitor. As the albums rewinds, the low-fi temperament of ?uest Love’s drums turns to upbeat swells and hooks. “Stomp” is the first track where this is seen and it proves to be a staple in the concept of Undun, for it is when Redford Stephen’s turns from a honest life of hardship and struggle, to a life of fast and easy money on the streets that inevitably leads to his ruin.
NOTEWORTHY TRACKS: Stomp, Lighthouse, One Time.