Def Jam, 2011
The Roots’ Undun covers the story of Redford Stephens, a New York City product who was born in the 70s and passes away in 1999. His death in this story jump-starts the record, and on the opener “Dun” an EKG flatline signifies the end of Stephens and the start of his story. Through this all, there’s a shared vision among each of the band’s members and the guest-spots (Big K.R.I.T., Dice Raw, Truck North, Phonte and more), and this in-turn makes Undun accessible and smooth beyond typical concept album convention. From Black Thought’s concocting rhymes and rhythm to each guest-vocal, each singer thoroughly displays the story of Redford, as if some part of their experience was through the eyes of Redford himself. The backing music is produced to a point, with a smooth soft finish to its lacker. Flowing like gravy with soft piano keys on “Sleep” to gospel-loving cuts such as “Make My,” The Roots make it a point to justify Redford’s life through both the lyrics and musical backdrop. Here everything comes together, hitting the listener with the cold realization of Redford Stephens and his story within inner-city NYC, and through Undun we see his life being told by precision and cutting realism. The aim of Undun is to portray the life of Redford Stephens, and it’s amazing how much more this album details. Undun takes the concept album and creates a whole new medium, and this is a testament to hip-hop storytelling, and the boundless creativity an artist can make from it.
The Roots have reached a level of fame, job security and popular culture influence that is hard to come by. This is in large part because of their gig as the house band for Jimmy Fallon but there is more to it. They are known for their live shows and despite a crazy twenty years of touring around the world, they have put together over ten albums without sacrificing the integrity of their sound or content. From 2011, their most recent studio album, Undun, stays true to this and tells a relevant story. Undun is about a fictional character named Redford Stevens that eventually succumbs to the undeniably tempting drug trade found on the corners of cities across the United States.
Undun begins with the end. The first track, “Dun,” is a little over a minute worth of what sounds like a flat-lining EKG that crescendos into the soberingly somber “Sleep.” Stevens is dying, think about what has transpired in his life. As Stevens, Black Thought raps:
“All that I am, all that I was is history/ The past unraveled, adding insult to this injury/ I’m fighting the battle for the soul of the century/ Destiny is everything that I pretend to be/ Look, and what I did came back to me eventually”
After “Sleep” comes “Make My,” a slow-moving melancholy track featuring Big K.R.I.T. that puts the arc of Stevens’ life into perspective. He seems to know that death is near and there isn’t anything he can do to prevent it. From there, we continue our journey back into the beginning of Stevens’ story. There is the height of his fame, wealth, success or whatever you call it set to music on “Kool On.”
On “The Other Side” and “Stomp,” Stevens is at the crossroads in his life. “I remember” and “Tip The Scale” are the true beginnings of the life of Redford Stevens, faced with the reality of the school to prison pipeline and the financial temptations of the drug trade. As Dice Raw illustrates:
“Lot of niggas go to prison/ How many come out Malcolm X? I know I’m not/ Shit, can’t even talk about the rest/ Famous last words: “You under arrest”/ Will I get popped tonight? It’s anybody’s guess/ I guess a nigga need to stay cunning/ I guess when the cops coming, need to start running/ I won’t make the same mistakes from my last run in/ You either done doing crime now or you done in/ I got a brother on the run and one in/ Wrote me a letter, he said when you coming”
The thing that makes Undun so great is that Redford Stevens’ narrative represents the pressure placed on urban, rural and youth anywhere in between those two extremes. He is any and all of us because this is a story about choices and walking down a particular path. We’ve all reached crossroads in our lives and we’ve been forced to make a decision and live with the consequences. It is about choice but it is also about life in the hood. In this case, Undun shows us the systematic way that youth in the city are set up to fail. This is a hard concept to grapple with and The Roots do this with the precision and skill of musicians that have seen a lot through the years and have been in the game for a long time.
With a slew of legendary guests such as Bilal, Sufjan Stevens, Truck North, Dice Raw, Phonte and Big K.R.I.T., Undun is musically on another level. It comes complete with orchestral arrangements, smooth keyboard patterns and percussion that is signature to Questlove and Frank Knuckles only because it is different than what they’ve done in the past. Lyrically, you can tell that every word in every verse was chosen for a very specific reason. This is not MCs cooking it up in a cypher, getting open and spitting off the top of their heads about how they’re feeling. This is carefully selected lines and rhymes that tell a specific story and because of this, I believe the story of Redford Stevens is told in the right way. Undun will change how you think about hip-hop, storytelling, youth in the United States and making music.