Listen: Undun by the Roots

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Article Reviews
undun
The Roots (Def Jam, 2011)

The Roots are famous now as the house band on The Jimmy Fallon Show, but they’ve been legend among America’s better-informed music lovers for a couple of decades. They emerged in the early ’90s as something of a novelty—a rap music act that was really a band, playing real musical instruments and playing them with skill and sophistication.

Now, on undun, The Roots push the musical boundaries of hip-hop and the storytelling potential of rap rhymes to their very limits. In the age of the 99-cent download, undun is a concept album that almost requires beginning-to-end listening. It tells the story of Redford Stephens, a small-time street-level drug dealer who meets the inevitable bad end. And it reminds of nothing so much as the epic blaxploitation movie soundtracks from the early ’70s produced by the likes of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. undun is a Superfly for our time, but without the cheesy Hollywood film production.

At the heart of The Roots is the partnership between ?uestlove (the band’s drummer and musical mastermind, real name Ahmir Thompson) and Black Thought (its chief rapper and lyricist, a.k.a. Tariq Trotter). In an NPR interview, Thompson likened their partnership to the Rolling Stones duo of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, without the narcotics. That reference and those loopy old-school hip-hop nicknames indicate the breadth of The Roots’ musical frame of reference. But only a little; there are also serious jazz and even Euro-classical influences floating around in undun.

The narrative of the album, while featuring several guest rappers, owes its heart and soul to Black Thought, who has several close relatives who’ve followed the main character’s path in real life. Verses like “I wonder when you die do you hear harps and bagpipes / If you were born on the other side of the crack pipe” certainly cut to the bone.

This article appeared in the February 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 2, page 58-59.)