In their eleventh full-length disc, The Roots may not have much left to prove as musicians. However, their decision to take Undun down the path of conceptualism in the life-telling of our protagonist Redford Stephens is an ambitious one – especially considering some of the names attached to the band’s soulful, yet deep sounds. Undun doesn’t jump off the page per se in a world of mechanical beats and sampled hip-hop, but the reminder of lush melodies, passionate lyricism and crisp drumming makes the ambition that much sweeter, creating something compelling and beautiful worth taking a listen to as the year comes to a close.
The mostly laid back sounds of Undun set the stage for something special right from the get-go. Though “Dun” is an instrumental track, it sets the mood for the somber “Sleep,” as the sparse percussion and melodies portray a sullen picture to back the telling chorus lyrics of ‘I lost a lot of sleep to dreams.’ The reverse storytelling reveals itself as we start at the end of Stephens’ life. As your ears tumble further down the rabbit hole, the often surreal, yet uplifting melodies (“One Time,” “Tip the Scale”) come in droves, not settling to just be a background piece to the wordsmiths heard throughout the record.
“The OtherSide” boasts a soulful, optimistic melody to help push the simple yet driving kick drum-led beat through the verses, switching over to grandiose organs and huge vocals for the chorus. Sufjan Stevens makes his way into the mix in the aptly named “Redford (For Yia-Yia and Pappou),” a pairing of crescendoing vocals and simple yet deliberate piano chords that helps further push the record’s atmosphere. The track leads the way as the first of four primarily instrumental tracks that finish the record, ranging from uncontrolled chaos (“Will to Power”) to bittersweet strings (“Finality”) that might have felt better wedged in between actual tracks instead of clumped together at the end. Still, this bridging of emotion over four ‘movements’ has its place in evoking emotion, even with a slight loss of direction in the album’s finish.
Lyrically, the album falls into topics of inspiration, perseverance and making it through everyday life. “One Time” has a simple chorus of wanting to change habits, while the verses expand on the ideas of reaching for something more, as Phonte and Dice Raw deliver knockout performances in their respective parts. On a different note, “Lighthouse” delivers on a metaphorically heavy introduction, weaving its nautical-themed words through a message of not going down with everyone else. It is done quite tastefully without coming across as tacky, something not done easily in any genre. Regardless, it only further supports the concept of the album, as we hear the story of trying to make it through life through Stephens’ eyes.
Though not big on uptempo beats or flashy riffs, Undun is a strong album lined with beauty and some lyrical diamonds in the rough. If soul, hip-hop or even R’n’B are on your mind, give this album a go; you certainly won’t find yourself disappointed.