You’ve got to prepare to listen to a Roots album. Off top, you know this isn’t gonna be the kind of album you’re gonna mindlessly put on while you’re getting dressed for the club or keep in the background while you’re rolling joints with friends. Nah, you’re going to have to invest some quality time and attention to The Roots’ work. This didn’t change with Undun, the band’s latest offering, the 13th studio album since they hit the scene in the early 1990s.
Undun is a concept album designed to chronicle the life of a fictional character named Redford Stephens. One must question the decision to create a concept album in 2011, the a la carte era of music, where most listeners will simply purchase the tracks that sound good to them on iTunes or listen to the tracks out of order on a streaming music service like Spotify or Grooveshark. The likely response to this question would be to consider the fact that The Roots is aware that fans of the band are not “most listeners”.
Honestly, I wouldn’t know this album was a “concept” album if I hadn’t known before playing it. Each track really stands on its own and there isn’t too much cohesion…but I mean that in a good way. There are some beautiful instrumental tracks toward the end that almost sound like music you’d hear between segments on NPR. Before that, you get The Roots as you know them. The usual players like Dice Raw, Truck North and Greg Porn make appearances, as well as folks like Bilal Oliver, who blesses “The Otherside” with a familiar Baby Huey-esque wail that accentuates and doesn’t overbear. Phonte spits with Black Thought and Dice over the plodding piano on “One Time”, a track that’s almost instantly likable. The introspective “Make My” features Big K.R.I.T. first up on the mic, lending a southern flavor that blends seamlessly. While many of the tracks stand on their own, the entire picture is drawn when one listens to it in order, even as the songs vary in texture and don’t immediately seem to go together until you get to the end. I’ll admit to not “getting” the picture they’re trying to paint in its entirety, but this is the kind of multi-layered project I’ll enjoy breaking down on future listens.
Though the group has become more popular since becoming the house band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, The Roots has not done too much to distance itself from its core audience who were listening to them as far back as 1996’s Illadelph Halflife or even 1993’s Organix! The Roots’ journey is one to be admired and reminisced upon. Whereas MCs used to be underground for years at a time before they saw the light of mainstream appeal, many now take the quick road to stardom and unfortunately sacrifice the quality of the music in the process. The Roots are a rare treasure, as they’ve flipped the usual script by not changing too much, but biding their time until people decided to give them a listen. They’re a testament to hard work paying off by putting the time in to make your music the way you want to make it just long enough for people to say “what’s so great about The Roots”…and being pleased that they took the chance and hipped themselves to it. Better late than never.