The Weekend Australian album review: The Roots – ‘undun’, December 2011

An album review for The Australian, reproduced below in its entirety.

The Roots – undun

As concept albums go, Philadelphia hip-hop band The Roots’ Undun isn’t too far removed from reality.

Dubbed an “existential retelling” of the life of a fictional American man named Redford Stephens, who lived between 1974 and 1999, Undun “seeks to illustrate the intersection of free will and prescribed destiny as it plays out ‘on the corner”‘.

Drugs, violence, desperation and regret play out in the narrative contained within these 14 tracks.

The tale begins at the end of Stephens’s life: in Sleep, MC Black Thought raps: “All that I am, all that I was, is history / The past unravelled, adding insult to this injury”. In Make My, the protagonist, still in a disoriented state, concludes: “If there’s a heaven, I can’t find the stairway”.

It’s a fascinating and original approach to urban storytelling that remains compelling throughout the album’s 39 minutes.

After 13 albums together, the Roots’ sound has become so distinguished and refined that it’s simply a joy to hear them at the height of their game. In effortlessly smooth track Kool On, each instrument – guitar, bass, drums, keys, vocals – can be clearly identified in the mix. Drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson can be relied on for at least one classic beat an album; on Undun, it’s The OtherSide.

The final four tracks – the “Redford Suite” – consist of a beautiful, elegiac orchestral arrangement. It’s the final surprise on an album that further solidifies the Roots as genre leaders.

LABEL: Universal
RATING: 4 stars

This review was originally published in The Weekend Australian Review on December 31. For more of The Roots, visit their website. The audio for ‘Make My‘ is embedded below.

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