Dense & Beautiful
undun is not Take Care. This album is not a self-centered confessional. It isn’t XXX. There’s no silliness to it. And it’s not Watch the Throne. It lacks the rich samples and grandiosity. It is instead a refreshingly different, soulful—a hip hop album that is at once a throwback to a simpler style and an expansion of that style, driven by strings, keys, and drums. It’s drastically different from most of what hip hop has become, but it seems to have a purity to its unparalleled sounds and lyricism. What you get with undun is an album that’s not for everyone, but that showcases a more beautiful side of hip hop.
The Root’s undun is more about voice than words, lyrics. In fact 5 of its 14 tracks have no words at all. undun does not suffer from this, though. It’s a seamless concept album covering the life and death of the semi-fictional Redford Stevens; actually, it would be more accurate to say death and life of Redford Stevens: it is a life in reverse, starting with the track “Dun” and moving backwards through Redford’s life as some sort of street hustler.
A sense of fate hangs over the album. Steven’s life events are ultimately futile, for the listener knows his lot has already been cast among the countless other urban victims. That is not to say it is entirely despondent. Rather, like the Root’s 2010 album How I Got Over, this piece has glimmers of hope, but they remain mirages among the melancholy. By placing the death at the start, it has become minimized, and the life, regardless of its circumstances, is glorified. Yet the story of Redford Stevens is one just as musical as it is lyrical or thematic. Black Thought and Dice Raw shine along with verses by guests like Big K.R.I.T., all while questlove carries an elegiac beat throughout.
It captures an emerging sound for the veteran Roots, one that is more downbeat, soulful. With the last tracks–a four part instrumental piece–undun moves from hip hop to hipster Sufjan Stevens, whose beautiful orchestration from the (underrated) 2003 album Michigan works to put the album in perspective. Ultimately, this album is not as explosive as the Roots were at their previous best, but it’s emblematic of their shift to hip hop mainstays and moored house band for Jimmy Fallon. That does not mean, though, that the album lacks ambition—it does not. It is a concept album that does not try to be too expansive, addressing Redford as a synecdoche for urban decay. In that, it hits the sweet spot of specificity, and the music and length match that perfectly.
undun has a companion app that features more insight into Steven’s background—interviews with family members, quotes, and music video vignettes. It is both comprehensive and well done. It is free in the app store.