The Score: The Roots, "Undun"

Tuesday, Dec 6, 2011 1:32PM

Written by J. Bachelor

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Spin Magazine 7/10
Ology 4/5
Pop Matters 8/10
Entertainment Weekly 90/100
Hip Hop Dx 5/5

The Roots have returned to tell a story of the life and times of fictional character Redford Stevens, a fictional man viewing life in deadly hindsight.

The album, titled Undun marks the 13th disc for the world famous crew, who have been rocking shows from sea to sea for nearly two decades.

Undun is the story of a man, Redford Stevens, dying in reverse, rewinding from the moment he became a statistic and hitting the points in his life where he's at his most self-aware. That he's a criminal who got caught up in the familiar street-hustle trappings that the modern media's documented countless times is a pivotal detail-- it's hit at an angle that seems to emphasize the futile inevitability of it all. His life could be any number of misdirected narratives that ends with a toe tag, and what details listeners learn about him are hazy, buried under archetypal turns of fate and decisive struggles. That this protagonist is a fictionalized composite of a handful of real people, filtered through a matter-of-fact narrative that splits character ambivalence with journalistic impartiality, only makes his lack of direction and the failure of any real closure stand out even more. "Lotta niggas go to prison," Dice Raw states on "Tip the Scale", "how many come out Malcolm X?"(Pitchfork)

Artists such as Big K.R.I.T., Phonte, and Truck North ride along to tell the story of Redford Stevens.

One of "Undun's" greatest strengths is its use of guest artists; the varied styles of rappers and singers including Phonte, Dice Raw, Bilal Oliver, Truck North and Big K.R.I.T. represent the tangled layers of Stephens' thoughts -- the criminal minded, the philosophical and the places where those two personalities collide.(LA Times)

The cast of characters enlisted to complete the album's sound includes Just Blaze, guitarist Kirk Douglas, D.J. Rogers and of course, the entire Roots band.

On "Stomp," renowned producer Just Blaze works in some Scott Storch-style "Still D.R.E." keys alongside a blues riff from guitarist Kirk Douglas. And the fuzziness of the looped D.J. Rogers sample on "Kool On" hearkens back to DJ Premier, its verses delivered with a classy bravado that would fit in on the set of Boardwalk Empire. Interestingly enough, the DJ Premier influence appears to be prevalent on several of undun's tracks, including "Lighthouse," with its delectable keys that are downright edible. This is the final third of the record, and the most baffling (in more ways than one). Hooks have always been a question mark for the Roots, and despite some great ones on here, the female chorus on "I Remember" decisively hits the ground with a thud.(New Student Union)

Several of the album's stand out tracks are a mix of rap, funk and soul music.

Sonically, though, undun is a knockout, sliding between genres, with the slinky digital grooves of songs like "Sleep" rubbing against the guitar-anddrums assault of "Stomp." The record ends with a three-part instrumental, including some mighty Elvin Jones-style bashing by Questlove - a musical coda more gripping than the saga that preceded it.(Rolling Stone)

Critics say that although The Roots remain one of the most influential hip-hop bands around, their latest release lacks the natural harmony established on some of their better known albums.

Undun feels like a legitimately weird and risky experiment, pushing the Roots into territory they may not be equipped for: See the four-part orchestral suite -- "Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)" -- which serves as the "big finale." Once again, it's great in theory, but also completely marooned from the rest of the record, and does little besides remind you that ?uestlove is a very, very good drummer. Sure, the Roots work hard and play hard on undun, but there's not enough pleasure to balance out Thought's business-like, consummately bland reading of the character who's supposed to bring the entire album to life.(Spin)
While Redford Stevens is a character we've long known in hip-hop, the Promethean method in which his story is told saves him from typicality. Undun touches on the full range of human emotions, reading more like a piece of literature rather than a collection of songs, and The Roots' concept success justifies their marks as genius. Undun is a record of life and death--think about that both ways ("marinate on it").(Ology)
To purchse Undun, click here.

Preview the album below:

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