You can — if you concentrate hard — faintly hear a baby bawling at the
very beginning of The Roots’ new album, “undun.” That’s because the
record follows a fictional life that isn’t so fictional.
Depicted by the band’s house emcee, Black Thought, Redford Stephens is the narrating character, a composition of many of BT’s family members and people he and fellow Roots founder ?uestlove knew from their hometown of Philadelphia.
Listening to “undun” you hear Redford’s hopes, dreams, mistakes and struggles, all told in uncompromising, uncontrived lyricism from Black Thought and soulful, mostly dark-hued arrangements from the band. Together, they’re not really so comparable to a film soundtrack. The final product is a fully developed story itself.
Their 13th album, “undun” stands in stark, artful, storytelling contrast to their last effort, “Wake Up,” a grandiose collaboration with John Legend that harnessed the R&B singer’s powerful register to blast classic Stevie Wonder-type heal-the-world anthems. In comparison, almost everything about “undun” (especially the horns and much of the vocal work) seems muted, including the tight coterie of rappers they favor against “Wake Up”’s troop of R&B singers.
Big K.R.I.T. shows up early, rapping a verse refreshingly free of much of the nihilism and gross conduct of young rappers on standout “Make My.” Light, naive synths plink along while Black Thought warns against a young man’s pressures: “Tryin’ to control the fits of panic / Unwritten and unravel / It’s the dead man’s pedantic.”
In fact, the intro to “Make My” resembles “Takk...”-era Sigur Rós more so than anything in modern hip-hop, at least until the beat kicks in and erases any concern that The Roots are consciously trying to sound like anybody but themselves.
Dice Raw steps up and delivers a startling truth and tragedy about drug-dealing and youth culture: “Niggas learn math just to understand the crack price / Then dive in headfirst like a jackknife.” There’s no cool-guy chest-beating here — only skillful, alarming and vivid descriptions of a life in struggle. It’s hard not to be reminded of Nas’ 1994 classic, “Illmatic,” in that sense.
The disc ends with a four-song suite starting with “Redford,” the poignant Sufjan Stevens track from the near the end of “Michigan.” There’s little in their version that’s any different — they appear to have bolstered the wordless vocals a little bit — but it’s far from out of place. Rather, it seems a welcome beginning of the end; their little suite that provides the little ellipsis punctuation to the end of “Tip the Scale,” as if to suggest that the story continues every day.
Album of the year? I think it belongs in the discussion.