I should apologize in advance if I have at all misled you. This is not a review of Undun.
To posit any sort of critical analysis at this point would be egregiously premature. Art needs to be consumed several times over before it can be properly situated amongst the myriad projects around it. Naturally, over the next few days, you will be inundated with reviews doting on about the artistic merit of the Roots most recent effort. And understandably so. It has been said before, but it is worth noting once again that the Roots have built a career out of progressive thought and sound—akin to a modern day Miles Davis.
But the sonic redemption of one of hip-hop’s most lasting acts is not up for debate, nor may it be even that significant. Time, I suppose, will ultimately tell. Instead, I want to point to something much greater than what the Legendary Foundation has done within the studio.
To understand Undun, you must first understand Redford Stephens, a person that we all know, most likely by another name. Stephens is the archetype of urban youth—young, gifted, and black. But, above all, he is troubled. The narrative of Stephens flows with the lucidity of a Spike film set in 1990s Brooklyn. It’s about as real as fiction can get. Some, if not most, will call this model undertaken by The Roots as “concept album;” an album that builds itself conceptually upon something greater than itself.
But isn’t that a bit redundant?
Theoretically, shouldn’t there be some sort of concept that flows throughout any artistic endeavor? In an era of mixtape revelry and one-track minds, albums have become a composite sketch of absolutely nothing. And I don’t mean that in the beautiful nothingness of an absurdist piece (Think Kafka’s The Metamorphosis). At any given moment, there is an album being released whose only linear thread is that the artist considered those to be the most bankable thirteen tracks recorded. That is not a concept. That is a crapshoot.
Again, this is not about the music. I’ve listened to many recent and memorable albums that can be considered as the summation of very contradictory sounds. I understand the commercial value of hiring the hottest 8-10 producers to work with you. And I understand outsourcing verses to 5-7 of the visible artists available. I get it. But it’s almost like an artistic paradox. The actual “experience” of music has been diluted into a daily download of the customary track-by-track leak of every single modern albums. This project resurrects the notion that an album is to be listened to from top to bottom, in succession. You can’t start a book on page 213 and you shouldn’t start an album on track 11. This is where Undun succeeds.
The narrative, of course, provides even greater sustenance for the musically insatiable. From a sociopolitical perspective Undun is doing the same things What’s Going On did for the 1970s. And that is not a comparison that I make casually. The purpose of this album is not to chart, but to tell a story. A word you will see tossed around is “cinematic.” I, too, would have to agree. This is a film playing out auditory form. As well done as each visual component has been, to be completely honest, they haven’t even been all that necessary.
The minute you press play, you are transported to uneven concrete sidewalks and bubble goose jackets. The music; it takes you there. That’s the mark of something special. But this is what The Roots have always done and why we appreciate them in the way that we do. With Undun, they’ve chosen to compose something that surprisingly few do today—a complete album.
The Roots release their highly-anticipated 13th studio album today. You can purchase it here.