One should go into undun
with some CliffsNotes, in case one is unaware or unclear of the musical endeavor they are about to undertake. The album is about a semi-fictionalized man named Redford Stephens who, despite his best efforts, can not escape the poverty and despair of inner-city life. He tries to escape by becoming and doing things he never wanted to do (street thug, drug dealer). His actions inevitably result in his death. This is his story, so be warned: don't listen to undun
if you are in a weird mood. This album is as dark, tragic, and moody as they come. undun
is a character study on what pushes a man to take such drastic actions when his back is pushed against a wall. But if you like music that makes you think, or hip-hop that is socially conscious and not just about how many cars someone drives, then listen on and enjoy.
kicks off with The Roots giving the Tarantino treatment to this concept (by starting at the end of course). The album begins with the instrumental "Dun," a track that begins with a single high pitched note, symbolizing a heart monitor, and builds upon on it, layer after layer, complete with throbbing bass to mirror the slowing arterial beat. By the time the down trodden keys of "Sleep" come in, we already know our protagonist's fate. He is dead and gone, but how did he get there?
That's the journey. The rest of the album attempts to answer, by playing his life in reverse. We know he's dead, so we retrace his steps backwards, through gunfire and so on all the way back to when he woke up that morning, thinking that he could escape exactly this fate. Black Thought assumes the voice of Redford with guest spots acting as his family and friends. The verses are tight and flawlessly executed, but not with the typical hip-hop pop-culture malaise. The rhymes aren't jam packed with witty references, getting drunk, sleeping with women, and living in a mansion. If other rappers approach their music that way, they are Inglorious Basterds
. With this album, The Roots are Saving Private Ryan
Musically speaking, undun
matches it's down trodden lyrical content. The band is usually so expressive and fluent in their musical abilities, but here they take a stripped down approach to the backing beats. They are playing with a professional restraint so as to let the actual verses of the story be the focus. The beats are still solid, calling back to more of a 1970s soul feel more than contemporary hip-hop. Tracks like "Stomp" do more with just drums, tambourine, piano, and a basic guitar riff than most songs can do with a full band and a backing orchestra. "Kool On" uses its vocal hook and groove-tastic, wahhed-out guitar riff to make a funky background for some killer rhymes. "Outside where the killers and the dealers swarm / And inside they dressed up like it's a telethon / Black tie affair but they holding heavy arms." The Roots flex their muscles on the album closing medley inspire by Sufjan Stevens' "Redford." It begins with the original track, moves towards an orchestral arrangement and exploding in a burst of chaotic drumming and piano playing, before finally reaching it's conclusion. The band's ability to call back to styles of yesteryear is nothing new. They've done it for years, but the balance created by the soulful beats supporting such devastating lyrics makes something that is beautifully woeful.
The story becomes a bit convoluted and hard to follow, especially since this is a rap album where guest vocalists appear on just about every track (?uest breaks down a basic plot line here
). The major themes are never off the mark, but it's the particulars, the little nuances that get lost in the shuffle. It becomes difficult to keep characters straight and how they relate back to Redford, but at the end of the day, they aren't essential to the story. This is an introspective album. It's not a damnation of inner-city living or a glorification of a thug life. It is just a man trying to figure how the hell he got to his ends.
This album is a heavy one, so it probably won't be bumped at your next house party. But undun
is meant to be viewed as its own entity, apart from the narrative of popular music. Taking songs out for a quick listen feels like reading a random chapter in a wonderful novel when you know you should really read the whole thing. It's always so much more rewarding if you do.
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MP3: "Stomp (feat. Greg Porn)"