Concept albums are always a tricky subject to approach, just look at Fucked Up’s David Comes To Life from earlier this year. A great idea but for me the execution was a little too muddled to be effective. The concept album is even riskier territory to cross when you’ve built up a fan base who have certain expectations from you. In the case of The Roots, the organic hip hop outfit have almost two decades of material and following behind them. So when they announced earlier this year the release of their 13th studio album, I was equal parts excited and anxious.
But as I first started to spin Undun any anxiety I had began to disintegrate and as the album continued all shreds of doubt had completely evaporated. Not only this is a fantastic stand alone record, it’s easily one of the best concept albums I’ve heard in a long time. The record charts the life and death of the semi fictional character Redford Stephens, a drug dealer who wasnt born criminal but instead became one. The story works in reverse with the opening track Dun charting Redfords death, what unfolds from here is the circumstances and thought process which lead him to his lifestyle and ultimately his death. The concept on it’s own is really meaty and is a throwback to tales spun by The Roots back in the day. But throw in the Memento esque timeline and you flip an already compelling narrative on it’s head. Undun wont be to everyones liking, hell it wont be appealing to all fans of the group even. But the bold, artistic endeavours of the Philly veterans is not only progressive but emotionally resonating. These are things you could very well argue a lot of contemporary Hip Hop is missing.
The structure of Undun is really well pieced together, the album works on three different tiers. The death, which shows a truly tender, delicate and humble side to the character of Stephens. The lifestyle, which shows the brash, arrogant, violent and angry side to Redford. This is perfectly illustrated in tracks like “The Otherside” and in particular “Stomp”. And then finally you have the life before which shows Redford’s crumbling and dire circumstances, the reasons he decides to take the path he does. For me the song “Lighthouse” portrays this side so well, it really gets into the mind sight of Redford through a simple metaphor. It’s a tipping point for both the character and the album as Stephens realises that the only person who will help him is himself.
Outside of the concept the album is firing on so many cylinders, instrumentally its much more mellow than previous efforts. Especially the the closing tracks which are fired off the back of the Sufjan Stevens composed and produced “Redford”. Undun has plenty of snapping beats and soulful hooks in fact there isn’t a weak song on the entire record. The only gripe I have with the album is that as a huge fan of Black Thought I wanted to hear more from him. In all honesty after last years feature filled How I Got Over I was hoping to hear Black Thought as the lone MC once again. But much like it’s predecessor Undun is pretty feature heavy, with contributions coming once again from Dice Raw and P.O.R.N. On the subject of features I was a little dissapointed to see that the rumoured cut featuring James Blake didnt make the final mix neither did any work with Blu. But these little issues aside I have a lot of love for Undun. It’s a great concept, executed really well in a solid, soulful and engaging LP which shows The Roots as the forward thinking unit they are.