Album review: The Roots, ‘Undun’ (Def Jam)

December 16, 2011

The nihilism inherent in committing to a life of a crime and the havoc that choice wreaks in African-American communities is not a new subject for the Roots; one could argue that it’s been a primary theme on every album the Philadelphia collective has made since 1993. What is new about the group’s 11th proper studio effort Undun is labeling this all-too-common and all-too-familiar story “a concept album,” complete with many of the trappings we’d expect from any self-respecting progressive-rock band, and screaming for a bit of recognition as capital-A “art.”

Hard to fault Questlove & Company on that front, since even before they accepted the corporate paycheck, healthcare benefits, and more regular home lives afforded a late-night talk-show band, they’d long since been taken for granted in the music world, consistently given props as “the best live band in hip-hop,” but rarely garnering the attention they deserved for their new albums (and while 1999’s Things Fall Apart and 2002’s Phrenology remain the masterpieces, really, they’ve never made a bad one). Then, too, they’ve hardly become the hackneyed Doc Severinsens of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, proving they’re as sharp as ever with the song choices that usher out the usual procession of glad-handers and self-promoters. (We are, of course, speaking of Bachmanngate.)

In any event, there’s a faint whiff of over-reaching and a hint of ponderous pretension on Undun, mostly on the lyrical/conceptual front.The story starts at the beginning, with the death of fictional protagonist Redford Stephens, and works backward through the tale of his bad choices and worse actions. But the effectiveness of this Joycean setup is hurt by the album’s musical arc: The opening funereal elegy “Undun” makes sense in context, but the closing four-part classical-meets-free jazz instrumental suite (with extra added Sufjan Stevens!) just doesn’t fit. Minus the album’s accompanying multi-media app (shades of Bjork!), it’s hard to follow the story, much less catch the biographical details of our anti-hero. And while the raps from Black Thought and assorted guests like Dice Raw and Greg Porn have some memorable lines (“You either done doin’ crime or you done in”; “I live life trying to tip the scales my way”; “Lotta niggas go to prison/How many come out Malcolm X?”), they lack the novelistic details we’d expect from, say, a Ghostface Killah, much less an Iceberg Slim.

All of that said, if you can separate the musical middle of the album from the beginning, the ending, the app, and the (failed) ambitions, tunes such as the old-school funk-pop groover “Kool On,” the haunting “Tip the Scale,” the gospel-soul anthem “Make My,” and the ferocious but melodic “The Other Side” rank with the very best the collective ever has recorded, driven home like an unrelenting rain by the most powerful snare drum in hip-hop or R&B, and boasting a profound artistry, intelligence, and consciousness that just doesn’t need heavy conceptualizing or Sufjan samples to be lauded as worthy art.

On the four-star scale: 3.5 stars.