Telling in reverse the tale of a man cut down before his time, The Roots
’ 11th studio album is ambitious without sacrificing its naturalistic beauty. It never feels stagey, and the tracks flow together in such a slipstream that the story never bogs things down. If anything, undun
tends towards the intangible, which is appropriate considering it’s about a dead man mulling over the mortal coil he has just shed.
In the process, The Roots
get at a street-soul humanity in the tradition of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield while reconfirming their status as a true ensemble. It’s telling just how often lead MC Black Thought steps aside to let others rap and sing.
In fact, some tracks don’t need words at all: the album opens with an instrumental and closes with another, a four-movement piece beginning with the Sufjan Stevens piano piece ‘Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappo)’. Telling the frustrated and familiar story of young black man Redford Stephens, the Philly vets follow up their 2010 album of protest songs with John Legend with something just as thoughtful and humane.
Between the relative briefness of the album – something drummer/producer ?uestlove says was intentional – and its fleeting vibe, it’s tricky to pin down. But highlights include the heartstrings-pulling lead single ‘Make My’, featuring auxiliary members Dice Raw and Big K.R.I.T. ‘One Time’ especially pulls off that great Roots trick of being fearsome and soulful at once, while the militant full-band bite of ‘Stomp’ recalls prime Public Enemy. Black Thought’s stone-faced immediacy and clarity are always indispensible, but Dice Raw gets possibly the best line of the album with “A lot of niggas go to prison / How many come out Malcolm X?”
Jail time and a short lifespan are common destinations for black men in America; Black Thought reflected in a recent interview how few men he knew had made it to age 30. But that’s not to call undun
preachy: its unusual premise is just a way of finding new insight into an epidemic of injustices that’s thrived for far too long.
The Roots may be grounded in hip-hop and today best known as the house band for a late-night U.S. talk show, but when language is left behind for the cacophony and catharsis of those last few pieces, they arrive at something much more universal.
Words by Doug Wallen. More at thevine.com.au
Ed's note: The Roots have used an image of Lifelounge favourite, Jamel Shabazz
. Very pleased.