It’s been a little over a year since The Roots last full band release when they hit the market in 2010 with the critically acclaimed and Grammy nominated How I Got Over. Since then they’ve been very busy bees. The new album from The Roots entitled undun is set to hit the market on December 6th. Long story short, if you have surgery scheduled for that day, reschedule it to go to the store, buy the CD and plan to spend many hours dissecting this true masterpiece of music.
undun boasts 14 tracks, but hard core purists longing for an album that lasts the length of an Illadelph Halflife will be frustrated, but by no means unhappy with new music from one of the greatest bands anywhere (not just in late night) with just under 40 minutes of music. Five of the 14 tracks clock in under 2 minutes, but they are those short gems that Roots fans have come to appreciate. Not to mention that The Roots have spent years of their career now creating those short “sandwiches” as the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
undun is the story of Redford Stephens and it’s a brief story of his life that has also been accompanied by video clips that have been created to help the story along. Let’s take it track by track, which has been done before during early listens on OkayPlayer. But now that we’re upon the final edits of the CD, it’s worth a re-review.
This instrumental/noise track features the sounds of a crying baby with an overdub of a flatline tone which immediately brings you into the story of a child born into a motherless world. It’s then brought in with a nice chord progression hearkening back to early Roots albums.
The first track has Redford discovering his mortality right off the bat. The spooky chord progressions draped with a haunting chorus performed by Aaron Livingston “I’ve lost a lot of sleep to dreams / And I do not miss them yet / I wouldn’t wish them on the worst of enemies / Let them burn, go from here / Like when autumn leaves.” This song is a tad hard to explain, but it’s mood filled heavy feel is a perfect introduction to the journey of Redford.
3) Make My (available now on Amazon)
The first track released from the album is Make My and your first hint that this album will continue the recipe that was so successful with their recent albums of poignant rhymes encapsulated between choruses sung by unexpected vocalists that brag tricky melodies that would make most songwriters jealous. The track finishes with a nice instrumental groove that is worthy of a loop of its own with a fat strolling bass groove. We begin to realize that Redford is an insomniac of sorts as his battles with sleep continue primarily as a result of his life and stress. “Addicted to the green if I don’t ball I get the shakes / I’d give it all for a peace of mind for heaven sakes.”
4) One Time
This song could almost be considered the tip of the hill with the upbeat smash beat from Questlove. This song features Phonte and Dice Raw adding their voices to the drama of the streets explaining their prowess of the game they have to play to survive. It adds a hard street stomp that you could sway to and having Phonte, Dice Raw and Black Thought sharing rhymes on the track means lyrical mastery from front to back.
5) Kool On
This song brings Greg Porn and Truck North to the mike with Black Thought bragging again on their superiority of the game that they’ve been forced to play. Black Thought is truly pulling his poetic side dropping lyrics like “Not in the lime light or needed for the crime right / No boasts, just bodied, chalked close to the line tight” creating stunning definitive visuals to the listener. All is draped with nice tight guitar riffs and a flowing chorus of the Bob Dylan-esque “Stars are made to shine”
6) The OtherSide
The OtherSide track is a retrospect of Redford’s actions as he realizes where the path is leading to. This song brings the under-appreciated Bilal Oliver to the mix singing a swooning chorus of “We’re all on a journey / Down the hall of memories / Don’t worry about what you ain’t got / leave with a little bit of dignity“. This song was originally called The Jump on the original recordings, but grew to be Redford’s song of reflection. The album slowly becomes more West Coast feeling that is even more prevalent on the next song..
This song brings Greg Porn back along with the instantly recognizable Just Blaze. The song boasts very West Coast sounding piano stabs in the vein of Dr. Dre’s album The Chronic 2011 (Still D.R.E. in particular). In this part of Redford’s journey, he’s exited out of the retrospect and gone back into the “I do this because” mode and has now added a militant stance that will be his demise.
Dice Raw and Black Thought take over the controls now as the paranoia creeps back in for Redford. There’s a feeling of helplessness in the lyrics as if even Redford cried for help, there wouldn’t be anyone there to even hear it or care. Hence the chorus lyrics, “And no one’s in the lighthouse / You’re face down in the ocean / And no one’s in the lighthouse / And it seems like you just screamed / It’s no one there to hear the sound / And it may feel like no one’s there / That cares if you drown / Face down in the ocean.” Even though the song is desperate in content, the song is strangely upbeat with nice fuzz-wah keyboards painting the melody over the background just enough to keep things out of focus.
9) I Remember
We’re back in reflection for Redford as he looks at his life and reflects back on people he’s hurt and choices he’s made. The song is a mid-paced song with a beautiful stutter beat chorus. You’re taken on a journey back home from the streets and the thought process that ensues courtesy of Black Thought.
10) Tip The Scale
Dice Raw and Black Thought close out the lyrical content of the album as they rip this song up with great lyrics such as Dice Raw’s closing “Only two ways out, Digging tunnels or digging graves out” which foreshadows Redford’s demise and supported by the accompanying video. The song speaks more to the unfairness of the world which is poetic in light of the Occupy protests. “Some live life just living well / I live life tryna tip the scale my way“.
11) Redford (For Yia-Yia and Pappou)
12) Possibility (2nd Movement)
13) Will To Power (3rd Movement)
14) Finality (4th Movement)
These last 4 tracks go by quickly, but they use the best of that time with a beautiful string section accompaniment. The pieces are loosely based on Sulfjan Stevens instrumental work on his Michigan album. The first song entitled Redford (track 11) was even performed by Sulfjan Stevens on piano, which yet further showcases Questlove’s never ending journey to find the most intriguing musical artists out there. Every album for the past 5 albums have featured just-breaking underground artists and The Roots do a great job at finding those pieces of the puzzle that add even more avant garde to the mix.
As mentioned, the album will be available on December 6th at pretty much all music distributors and of course Amazon which already has a home for it (sans any audio clips). However, if you’d like to hear the album in its entirety, NPR has released a full album preview here. We also have compiled all of the videos, photos and lyrics for the album on our site here that serves as the perfect partner for the album review.
All in all, we’re giving this album a 5 out of 5 stars. Many people will scoff at the 5 star rating due to the length of the album, but you have to remember that considering that they work non-stop as Jimmy Fallon‘s house band, DJ weekly events, create multiple albums with other artists such as John Legend (the Grammy award winning Wake Up!), Duffy, Betty Wright, their fans should be very satisfied with this release. Reschedule that appendectomy or heart surgery and get to the store to pick up this unbelievable new work of art that is one of their most cohesive works to date since the likes of Phrenology.