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Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 in Review: [#3] The Roots

[#3] THE ROOTS - "undun"
The Roots are back with (what they call) album number #13 although I personally would make the argument that this is closer to being their eleventh official release as a group. But that really doesn't matters though. What do matter is that the crew are still as progressive as ever, they still make music with substance and their mixture of live instrumentation and samples is still not to be fucked with. And maybe most importantly, Black Thought is still probably the best emcee of the day and the same can be said for ?uestlove as one of today's best drummers, any genre.

The group's last album "How I Got Over" and "undun" are, to me, companion pieces. Not only are the music much in the same vein but conceptually they both describe the struggles of finding one's own identity while fighting for survival when growing up in a troubled inner city area where the hustler mentality has become the norm. "How I Got Over" represented the triumph of coming out victorious from that situation by making the right choices and not backing down. "undun" is the opposite side of the spectrum and tells the story of a fictional character named Redford Stephens (portrayed by Black Thought a.k.a. Tariq Trotter) who basically starts out with the same premisses. But by making altogether different and wrong choices, the album plays out like a requiem for a troubled young man that I believe many of us can see parts of ourselves in, whereas its predecessor was a celebration of overcoming.

It is true that "undun" is a concept album, but it is not at all as direct or as obvious as "A Prince Among Thieves" or Sticky Fingaz's "Black Trash". The casual listener might not even notice that the music in fact follows (or rather forms) a storyline and it will most likely take you several listens before you can really grasp the full scale of events. Therein also lies its brilliance and trust me when I say that The Roots have made another brilliant record with "undun". There's not many emcees that could pull off an album like this with such belivability but luckily Black Thought's portrayal of Redford Stephen's could be an Oscar nominee if this was an actual flick. The story is not told in chronological order as it's not even a "traditional story"; instead each song works as a glimpse into Redford's mind and with each peak we gets closer to understanding who he is and why he is doing the things he are. Luckily we are not introduced to the character only through his bad actions which easily could become rather cliché. Instead the listener gets to know the person through his thoughts which, like for any of us, are often conflicting and confused as he struggles to find himself in the midst of good and bad times. It's understood that he most of the time is feeling trapped by his enviroment and surrounds himself by likeminded persons (portrayed by guest artists like Dice Raw, Big K.R.I.T., Phonte, Truck North and Greg Porn). Through the virtuosic performance by Black Thought and a good supporting cast, you'll actually feel strongly for the character(s) of "undun" and once the faith of Stephen's is sealed, you'll feel like you're catching a rock hard punch to the stomach as "reality" forms screaming.
So, the vocal parts and concept of the album is obviously pretty damn fantastic, but how does the actual musical tunes hold up?`Well, although several changes has been made in The Roots line-up throughout the years, the long-standing musical relationship like the one shared by the powerhouse of the band - ?uestlove and Black Thought - enables the large band to think, function and act like one unified mind. The instrumentalists are of course brilliant in their own right too; Kamal Gray and James Poyser share keyboard duties and besides the trusted Fender Rhodes (which I'm so glad they returned to after the sinister synthesizers that fueled "Rising Down") one of the most featured sounds of the LP is that of the electric organ which helps underline the feeling of a requiem. The same can be said about the string sections, orchestrated by long-time affiliate Larry Gold, which can be heard on many songs either in the background like on the haunting "Tip the Scale" or right upfront like on the long outro for "I Remember".

Just like the lyrical content the musical moods are many and although I wouldn't say it's their best album, I have to say that ?uestlove is becoming a better and more varied producer with every year. There's plenty of instrumental bits and pieces on here, including long Jay Dee influenced codas like the one heard on the atmospheric stand-out "Make My" or the similiar opening theme "Dun". Matter of fact, the LP closes with an instrumental suite divided into four sections that are all very different in tone but all featuring variations of a musical motif which is Redford's theme. The meaning behind this long album coda are up for interpretation, but to me they represent the spirit of Redford Stephens rising up from his physical body after comitting suicide and after a struggle (represented by the awesome free jazz section) finally makes it into the light.

It's often been said that The Roots never dissapoints and have one of the absolute best discographies out as far as rap music goes and it pleases me to honestly being able to say that "undun" fits right in with the rest of their superior back catalouge. It's a well executed and well written concept; it has Black Thought spitting verse after verse of absolute masterpiece quality; the musical backdrop are often moody, somber and atmospheric but there's several exceptions to this rule such as the summer-y "Kool On", the agressive Sean C & LV-produced anthem "Stomp" or the pleasant piano-driven "One Time" on which the element of Mercedes Martinez guest vocals takes the song to the next level (remember the "Illadelph Halflife" days?). 

Don't mistake this long, analytical review for me saying that "unun" is perfect though, because it isn't. There's a few hooks that a little too light for the subject matter, a little too alternative indie pop choruses here and there (why get Dice Raw singing when you got Phtone, Bilal and Mercedez): and although they often do more than OK like the last two Roots album there's way too many guest artists (I loved The Roots when the albums were like B.T. solo joints, or when it was just he and Malik B.). For the next joint I hope that they make Dice Raw an official member already and have him and Black Thought do all the rappinng with only the occassional (and dope) guest artist. I wouldn't mind another concept album from these guys though and even more I hope for a vinyl release of this soon - I very rarely buy CDs these days but I had to cop this, M.O.P. and Common's new ish though. Bottomline; this is without a doubt the best semi.-commercial hip-hop release of the entire year and if this loses to some new Eminem album next year in the vein of "Recovery" I'm gonna have a GOOD LAUGH!!

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