I’m annoyed at myself for jumping the gun on Top 5 Favorite Albums of 2011, because I have a new addition that easily breaks into the Top 3. It could be a contender for #1, depending on the ranking rationale I use. That’s for another post. Let me talk about this magnificent album.
undun is the 14th album release by The Roots, and this is the first one that I have really taken in, absorbed, analyzed, and that has really moved me. I begin to wonder if I’m moved most because of the content of the work or if they are all this good and I just need to dig deeper to find the gold. I’m assuming the latter.
This album is like The Wire set to music. Every piece you read about it will tell you this is The Roots’ first concept album, and so I feel obligated to say the same. Don’t let it scare you away though. It’s still an album with songs on it. Back to front, it describes a day in the life of fictional character Redford Stevens. Redford wakes up to his drug dealing existence and the day ends with his death. This is not light subject matter. But the way it is delivered is so powerful. This is exactly what rap needs to be. Real, intense, and there’s a weight to it. This isn’t an album dedicated to the excesses of the idealized rap life (see Watch The Throne). This is the story of so many inner-city youths viewed through the last day of this character’s life. Main vocalist Black Thought has said in press interviews for this album that he has had family members go through this whole ordeal. He managed to get out of the game before he was forced to completely surrender to it. The lyrics in these songs feel real because they are. These vocalists have witnessed tragic things on the streets of poor America and that translates well to these songs. This is heady material.
And it’s complemented so well by the music. De facto band leader ?uestlove has created sonic landscapes where people live and die on the whim of a bad decision. I listen to it and I feel transported to a scene and I watch this guy question his existence and fight to stay confident and stay alive. And holy cow it is beautiful. Don’t get me wrong, I love sampling in hip hop. But this album feels real because it’s original. This is a collection of real musicians making music in a studio without the use of a James Brown drum track that’s been chopped/screwed beyond all recognition. Really gorgeous sounds here.
I do want to point out the one brazen use of “sampling” here. I don’t even consider sampling because it’s the actual artist performing his song on this album and then interpolating it into something different. Sufjan Stevens begins the closing orchestral suite of the album by performing his tune of his album Michigan. The song is “Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou),” and while it is just a succession of four chords played on the piano, he becomes the sonic foundation for the rest of the suite. The first time I heard the whole thing played together, as the album closer, it nearly moved me to tears. I don’t know what ?uestlove has done, but he has taken an already beautiful song and transformed it into this otherworldly narrative that aurally describes this kid’s doomed existence. It’s insanely powerful.
So good for The Roots. It’s crazy that a band releases its best album after 20 years, let alone stay together after 20 years. I’m glad we still have artists who put out albums which can be aspired to by the rest of their entire genre.