Listen: The Roots, ‘Undun’

Listen: The Roots, undun via NPR

Just as everyone is putting together their lists of 2011’s best albums, The Roots are preparing for the December 6 drop of their excellent 13th album, undun. As Charlie Kaplan writes in this highly recommended overview of the album,

Death pervades undun; it follows Redford Stephens, a poor kid from Philadelphia and victim to the drug trade, from the moment he surrenders himself to the game all the way to his inevitable end. Along the way, no verse is wasted, no optimism is spared; each line is like a shovelful of dirt on Redford’s coffin. At 39 minutes,undun feels like a lifetime, because it is one.

But, as outlined explicitly in the intro to the vignette for “Tip the Scale” (below), it’s not a story of heroism or victimhood. Rather, it’s a story lived who knows how many times, told so compellingly on undun that it’s impossible to not feel engaged. Kaplan concludes his piece with this:

Black Thought has never been frivolous, but there’s extra seriousness to his performance on this record that can only be explained by someone who truly knows him. “Redford is definitely compiled [from] five or six people that we’ve known from Philadelphia,” ?uestlove told Spin magazine recently. “Tariq [a.k.a. Black Thought]’s entire family, his cousin and brothers, have literally all been this guy. Tariq is the only one that has escaped the fate that most of his family have encountered. The narrative definitely hits home with him more than any other member of the band.”

Undun is challenging, and completely different from so much of what I’ve been hearing lately. Black Thought’s lyrical performances are complex, sharply conscious and affecting; the instrumentals are unbelievably rich. In short, undun is the type of album a college course on music or sociology could be taught around, a quality to which very few albums could lay claim.

You can download a free complementary app for undun here, which, according to its own description, “elucidates the life and times of one Redford Stevens (1974-1999), a complex youth who struggles to define himself within a troubled inner city milieu and dies in the process.”

Also, after the jump you can watch the four promo vignettes prior to this stream, arranged together here in their proper order, where sobering black and white footage makes clear the concept album’s very real basis:

“Make My”

“Tip the Scale”