The Roots thirteenth studio album and first ever concept album tells the tale of Redford Stephens, a fictional street hustler whose demise is documented in reverse on undun. The story of Stephen’s life isn’t a happy one, it is a narrative that encompasses the many obstacles of street life and ultimately reflects some of the more unfortunate realities of our society. undun is on par with any of The Roots best works, and is arguably one of the best albums of year as it takes listeners on a very pensive journey through lyrical content and instrumentals that go way beyond the traditional boundaries of hip-hop, something that The Roots always seem to push.
undun begins with the death of Redford Stephens on the track “Dun” which is one of five tracks on the album that does not contain any vocals. Following “Dun” or technically prior to it since we are moving backwards, comes the song “Sleep” which takes listeners through the fallen protagonist’s final moments of life where he reminisces on his brief existence and early exit with lyrics like “illegal activity controls my black symphony / orchestrated like it happed incidentally / there I go from a man to a memory / I wonder if my fam will remember me.” “Sleep” is one of undun’s darkest cuts and successfully sets the stage for the rest of the project.
Not that he needs any, but Roots front man Black Thought gets some help narrating Stephen’s story from a select few lyrically gifted MC’s like Phonte on “One Time” and Big K.R.I.T. on “Make My”. K.R.I.T.’s verse on “Make My” is an exceptional one, perhaps one of his best, as he addresses the concept of C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me) with lyrics like “I did it all for the money, lord / that’s what it seems / cuz in the world of night terrors it’s / hard to dream, they hollering cash rules everything /just call it cream cuz when it rises to the top you get the finer things.” The notion of C.R.E.A.M. is vital to the being of any hustler including Redford Stephens, however the same ideology is also responsible for his death, which is depicted in the video for a shortened version of “Make My.”
As undun progresses it not only takes you to the earlier parts of Redford Stephens‘ life but also deeper into his mind as he contemplates his path. Songs like “Tip The Scale” and “The Otherside” display Stephens’ reasoning behind his decision to take the route of a hustler and such a thought process is brought to life by simple yet beautiful production. Unlike the vast majority of Hip-Hop acts, The Roots are actually a band, and that gives them so much freedom to go in a variety of different directions regarding production. For example, ?uestlove is able to incorporate everything from soul and jazz on songs like “The Otherside,” rock and roll on the guitar filled “Kool On” and even some modern electronic sounds on “Lighthouse.”
Like many concept albums, a lot of the songs and lyrics on undun require multiple listens and careful dissection to fully interpret them. However, the last four tracks leave room for the listener to interpret their own beginning to Redford Stephens’ story as they contain no words at all; just a series of instrumentals all of which are under two minutes. Needless to say those are the only tracks Black Thought doesn’t completely go off on.
The Roots are like fine wine; they only get better with age. Not only that but they are constantly finding new ways to remain fresh and relevant and undun is a perfect example of them doing so. On the surface, this album is a collection of terrifically composed music that includes a wide range of genres and emotions. However, deep down undun challenges listeners to not only examine the story of Redford Stephens, which really represents the story of too many young black men in America, but also their own story and the choices they make, which in turn is truly the mark of a great album.