If there’s any one thing you’ve heard about The Roots’ 13th album Undun, it’s likely that it involves the term “concept-album.” But that label can be misleading. “Concept-album” conjures expectations for operatic epics, a grand ambitious departure from the expected. In that sense, Undun isn’t really a “concept-album” at all.
What people mean when they call Undun a concept album is simply that the songs tell a story. That story follows a fictional character named Redford Stevens, (named for a song by Sufjan Stevens, who contributes on several tracks), as he struggles to make sense of the crime and poverty that have come to define his life. Redford, ever the self-reflective protagonist, is both a product of the streets and a critic of the values they’ve instilled in him.
The songs trace Redford’s evolving perspective on his life and his choices as he matures, like in “Make My,” where he reflects on his obsession with money and the dissatisfaction he feels once he acquires it. “Addicted to the green, if I don’t ball I’ll get the shakes / I’d give it all for a peace of mind, for Heaven’s Sake,” raps Black Thought, as Redford.
There are songs on Undun like “Make My” and the single “The OtherSide” that sound relatively safe for a “concept-album.” Like any of The Roots’ albums, there’s a strong presence of pitch-perfect organic instruments, concise songwriting and as always, the greatest snare sound in hip-hop.
But peppered throughout the moments of structure and accessibility on Undun are interludes of avant-garde brilliance, like on the intro “Dun,” which finds the group treading dark soundscapes before plummeting into the ominous, straight-faced hip-hop of “Sleep.” One of the wonders of Undun is the way it layers the straightforward hip-hop with the “high-concept” stuff, producing a result that is neither straightforward nor “high concept.”
But back to Redford. With the character inspired by Sufjan Stevens and the album name derived from the eponymous song from The Guess Who, it’s easy to characterize the work as concept-driven, as with the final four tracks which re-compose and translate Steven’s song into an orchestral, sweeping tour through the album’s musical themes (they’re called “movements”). But Redford’s narrative isn’t imposed on the listener in any overbearing way. In fact, you can easily enjoy the album without acknowledging the “concept” aspect at all.
Redford isn’t the driving force of the album’s content; he’s not blind, deaf, or dumb, he doesn’t play pinball. Redford is simply the character through which the group can say what they want to say. And in that sense, he takes a backseat to the trademark style and intelligent composition that have come to define The Roots for their 15 year career.
Undun isn’t a great concept album, it’s simply a great album.
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