In 2010, the world saw Alternative Hip-Hop band The Roots get serious with their eclectic, critically acclaimed, and mature How I Got Over and a follow up in the same year with a politically charged cover album in collaboration with R&B perfectionist John Legend titled Wake Up! With these two releases in mind, it didn’t come as much of a surprise when the band announced a release of a concept album called undun that chronicles the life of fictitious character Redford Stephens.
What is astonishing is the attention to detail and relentless commitment the group took to make certain the concept gets spoken into precise existence in all lyrical, musical and visual aspects possible. Black Thought stated in multiple interviews that this was the first album where the verses written by him for the record were edited by individuals affiliated with The Roots crew in order to escalate the storyline into higher reality and in those same interviews percussionist and producer ?uestlove states having to submit the one minute and seventeen second introduction “dun,” along with other various musical portions of the album four or five times before having an overall approval from all parties involved that it was sufficient enough to be presented on the record.
Add in the four short films, release of the lyrics to the internet before the music, an iPhone app and countless other processes undun had to go through before it’s mass manufacture for the public to eat up and you have a crew so involved and dedicated to the projects they commit themselves to that it’s hard to doubt them as one of the most “steady on the grind” group of musicians on the planet. In fact, the recently published article “A Day In The Life Of ?uestlove” is enough to give a standing ovation to just how connected Ahmir Khalib Thompson stays to his work. Basically, they’ve lost a lot of sleep to dreams lately…but unlike Redford Stevens, these aren’t nightmares.
undun starts out in mourning as we hear a baby cry and sine wave come in through the left speaker, with distant breathing on the right before instrumentation filled with phasing “oohs,” a soulful organ, piano keys, and minimal synth programming fade into the mix. Once they make their way fully into the track, the crying gets louder, a moderately fast heart beat engulfs the majority of the frequencies within the track, the sine representing a heart rate monitor fades out and then back in to create the climax that brings the introduction track, appropriately titled “dun” to it’s final lift off before a reverbed scream takes us into the next track.
“Sleep” begins working us backward in this narrative, with an eerie, minimal opening, filled with stereo spread percussive snaps and micro beats to create a platform for featured artist Aaron Livingston to deliver the first few layered lines that set the poetic surroundings of what the concept album is about:
“Like when autumn leaves fall down from the trees, there goes my honeybee. I’ve lost a lot of sleep to dreams. I do not miss them yet. wouldn’t wish them on than worst of enemies. Let them burn, go from here like when autumn leaves.”
The autumn leaves/autumn leaves is just one of the clever uses of phrasing featured on the record and being one of the first choruses to be heard throughout undun demonstrates just how lyrically heavy The Roots have gotten themselves into. From there, Black Thought’s low-to-mid EQ boosted lead vocals come in, where they remain pretty much for the rest of the record. He delivers his verses over a track that eventually starts slowly morphing into a a more hip-hop flavored song, but filled with vast, open frequency space, which works excellently. Even though it reads on the TT Loudness Meter as having a dynamic range average of seven decibels, with the left side of the mix clipping at one point or another, it’s an acceptable standard in this genre of music that works by way of maximizing volume by allowing more extreme compression because of the minimalistic feel of the track. It allows an uncluttered sonic spectrum by not having large amounts of melodies and frequencies that end up over-complicating a mix and is one of the many problems we face in the so-called loudness wars of the 21st century.
Most of the songs on this record fall under the category just described: mixed a bit aggressively, but soft enough that it works and is able to blend different genres together in a sonically optimistic way. The only other track on undun that suffers from clipping somewhere within the song is “The OtherSide,” which has quite an interestingly big kick sound that employs a compression technique set to create a subtle pumping sound that gives the track more depth and perception. Unfortunately, in this case, melodies and percussion are more prominent in the mix and when it comes to the chorus of the track that features vocals from Bilal Oliver it’s a small fight between instrumentation to be heard over the vocal melody, which happens to be mixed very loudly.
Not one track on this record is a bust, however. If something is wrong sonically, the content of the song saves it from being a disaster and becomes a more than redeeming quality. Greg Porn brings in the third verse and the long reverb on his raspy vox is a nice touch and but at the very end of his verse there is distortion where he ends his last line because the combination of Bilal’s vocals, instrumental fill, and Greg’s vocals becoming a frequency clutter.
P.O.R.N.’s content more than makes up for the engineering mishaps: “Every night I’m crossing a line that ain’t the finish. Every thought is dark as a glass of fucking Guinness. To far gone to come back to my senses. Now I’m on the edge of my bed making love to my meds. Every moments like a pistol to my head when I’m getting mine.”
P.O.R.N.’s verse and any of the aforementioned lyrics in this review have nothing on “Make My,” which was released via iTunes before the release of the album and promoted during the beginnings of the campaign for this album. In this song we find one of the deepest, heartbreaking, and somber songs of The Roots’ entire catalog of music.
The four minute and twenty-seven second track explains that Mr. Stephens has in fact been killed and he is slowly coming to terms that his life is about to meet it’s end. From the controlled, oscillating synthesizer pad that meets us at the beginning of the track before turning into a piano-esque sounding lead that accompanies the tracks and tracks and tracks of percussion, the few guitar lines, and even some live strings lingering in the background, it’s an extremely emotional and honest effort from the group and one that could cause even the heaviest of Hip-Hop, Rap, and music lovers in general to stop what they’re doing and take a good, hard listen at the commanding sadness of the overall production.
“They told me that the ends would justify the means
they told me at the end, it would justify the dreams
That I’ve had since a child, maybe I’ll throw in the towel
And make my, make my, make my, make my
Departure from the world”
“If there’s a heaven I can’t find the stairway” Black Thought laments before a final chorus and an instrumental coda and is a track that only be experienced, not described. It’s gorgeously mixed, gorgeously written, and is a contender for 2020k’s Top song of 2011. During the coda, there’s a constant build that goes from just instrumentation, to harmonic “oohs” and a looped track that periodically repeats the phrase “make my”. The signature phase mixing technique on the hi-hat of the track that’s been used in a lot of Roots recordings glimmers brightly during this song, which builds up it’s subtle phase sweep and explodes into a crashing symbol that rides the track out and onto the next.
“One Time” starts off on a more experimental foot, using the keyboard outro of “Make My” and sends it into a repeating melodic frenzy that straightens out and quickly calms down in time for the slapback delayed percussion of the song to kick in. But, it’s the fadeout from this track and into “Kool On” that contains a sample of “Where There’s a Will (There’s a Way)” by DJ Rogers that displays the group’s finest example of genre bouncing as a demonstration of old school soul and funk are combined over ?uest’s smart percussion and verses featuring lighter lines by P.O.R.N. that creatively switch rhyme schemes halfway through his 16 bars.
P.O.R.N. gives his all on every verse he’s featured on throughout the album’s 38 minute journey, but long time collaborator Dice Raw also establishes extraordinary talent by once again providing hooks and verses, proving just as eclectic as the band on the track “Lighthouse” by snatching up 3/4’s vocal time on the track. A delayed and chorused chorus delivery pops up the track and delivers it in a polished style of mixing, adding thickness, density, and dignity to a track that proclaims “you’re face down in the ocean.” This song is anything but that.
In fact, as the album comes to a close it creates a feeling of accomplishment and cohesiveness that aides nicely along The Roots’ growing discography of mature, left-field-but-still-in-play, thought provoking music that’s been blossoming as of late within their career. The end four songs dubbed The Redford Suite are short instrumentals that rely heavily on live string instrumentation, experimental percussion,, and short jam sessions that illustrate the record’s concept in a vocally silent well that’s both effective and inspiring.
“Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)” is a track entirely constructed by Sufjan Stevens that sits at an extremely beautiful and admirable dynamic range of 13 decibels. It’s atmospheric, piano driven, and you can hear different things going on inside the piano as well as things going on in the room it’s being recorded in. It’s holds the same emotional grip as “Make My” and by the time “Possibility (2nd Movement)” begins it’s full fledged departure into a happier musical atmosphere it’s clear that the expansion and willingness of The Roots to be able to experiment in more classical and thematic aspects of music is one that will remain constant and be one of the many reasons the longevity and evolution of their career has stayed relevant. An experimental jam sees it’s way into “Will to Power (3rd Movement)” and ends the record quietly and reverently in “Finality (4th Movement)” before an unsettling piano chord slowly resonates it’s way to the records final seconds, issuing a warning sign of more to come.
At the conclusion of the concept, we find that we’ve worked entirely backwards from the death of Redford Stephens to happier times, to life, celebration and crossroads. Undun is a lyrically leaden case study of one individual’s fight to live his life in a perspective that best suits the situations and upbringings that caused him to take the directions traveled. It’s a fine psychological report from one of the most respectable and creative bands in the history of music. Hip-Hop artists: take note – The Roots are here to keep impressing us album by album and will never, ever be dun.
If you’d like to follow along the concept of undun here is an exclusive from Okayplayer, from ?uestlove, breaking down each song and more:
song two-dying but dont know im dead yet, oh snap i am dead!!! wahhhhaa!
song three-someone kills me
song four- “got a problem nigga?….what?!?! what??!?!?!?….oh…you better walk away….so anyway yall like i was saying we shou——–
song five-work done. let’s celebrate a lil bit. but just for a lil bit
song six- its a dirty job but somebody has got to do it and a closed mouth dont get fed. even though im haunted by the actions that got me here
song seven- live like an animal. die like an animal. but life goes on.
song eight- am i my brothers keeper? nah dukes. this is a business. sorry. but you had it coming to you.
song nine- i hate being put in this situation, but now i gotta “handle something” and i gotta do what i gotta do. even if that mean an ICU…
song 10- im all business. and unlike these scumbags. im rising outta this mess somehow someway
a) nightfall. time to retire.
c) nightmares haunts
d) prepares for new day and whatever challenges that come forth/abrupt awakening.”
Album rating: 4.5/5