At this moment, this is my hip-hop/R&B/(maybe every genre, but I can’t fairly say) album of the year. Common could change that next week, but for now, undun is it.
The shit is perfect. The Roots always come with it, but this one hit me hard from the first listen. Combining the best elements of each of their most recent albums — the dark tone of Game Theory and Rising Down, and the drive of How I Got Over — this should go down as one of their masterpieces. Unlike those albums, which I enjoyed no doubt (How I Got Over, especially, is really, really good), I thought undun — not including the four movements at the end — was incredibly consistent, and constantly building, throughout. There was never a dip or break in the action, and the sequencing is impeccable.
Much has been made of the fact that The Roots constructed this album to tell the semi-fictional story of Redford Stephens, a young, Black, urban teenager, and you can hear parts of that story being told on each of the album’s 10 tracks. However, despite the cleverness of the narrative, undun is mostly just about the music for me. Blacks Thought is Black Thought; the choruses on every song are tight and meaningful; and the stripped down, heavy and poignant instrumentation — especially the drums, guitars and piano — provide a perfect canvas.
1. Dun – A quiet intro, this does a fine job setting the stage. No lyrics and nothing too energetic from the instrumentalists or vocalists. This is simply the beginning of a steadily brewing tale.
2. Sleep – Clocking in at just over two minutes, and consisting of just one verse, this song creeps eerily — it almost feels like a clock ticking. Continuing the intro’s mission of laying the foundation for the rest of the album, we’re introduced to the dark world of Stephens via the hook (“I’ve lost a lot of sleep to dreams”), and Black Thought, who raps that “Illegal activity controls my Black symphony.”
3. Make My (Feat. Big K.R.I.T. & Dice Raw) – Featuring one hip-hop’s best lyricists, this rides smooth. KRIT and Black both offer up insightful verses, reflecting on their — or Redford’s — grim reality. Like “Sleep”, the chorus backs this up perfectly: “they told me that the end, won’t justify the means, and they told me that the end, don’t justify the dreams”. It’s the two-minute jam and harmonizing at the end that makes this song for me. I could listen to that segment on repeat for hours. So smooth.
4. One Time (Feat. Phonte & Dice Raw) – Dating back to their last album, How I Got Over, Phonte has become one of The Roots’ most effective collaborators. This record is no different. Here is where the pace of the album really picks up, as the keys and drums drive this one all the way home, along with some energetic rhymes from Phonte, who wastes no time getting things going — “the spirit in the sky screamed homicide, but it was time to ride on some niggas funny-talking, if too much money talking we make ’em economize, real rap no tale-spinnin!” Black Thought dives in menacing on verse 2, and Dice Raw comes correct, as well. Another great, purposeful chorus, exemplifies just how flawless this album is, as “Make My” flows seamlessly into this, and this flow seamless into…
5. Kool On (Feat. Greg Porn & Truck North) – This shit right here?! On my first run-through the album, this is the first song that snatched my attention and made me hit the repeat button. Incredible chorus, fantastic sample and super-soulful, this grooves 100 percent and the rest is really gravy. Black spittin’ that shit as usual: “I got ’em waiting on the news like I’m Cronkite.” This is the only cut on undun that features a sample — check it out: DJ Rogers, “Where There’s A Will There’s A Way”.
6. The Otherside (Feat. Bilal Oliver & Greg Porn) – ?uestlove’s drums absolutely knock on this, and the keys are haunting. Fellow Soulquarian Bilal — one of the best crooners in the business — fits in perfectly and makes his presence well-felt in the refrain, personifying Redford’s tale.
7. Stomp (Feat. Greg Porn) – The guitar on this joint is phenomenal, almost erotic, reminding very much of the guitar on Kanye’s “Gorgeous“. No chorus, just spirited, passionate, distorted spoken word; something to listen to before a game…. Black’s best verse on the album — he smokes this shit! And it’s produced by Sean C & LV (Diddy’s comrades who did much of Hov’s American Gangster).
8. Lighthouse (Feat. Dice Raw) – Again with the perfect symmetry, Stomp rolls seamlessly into this, and it works out magnificently. Lighthouse may be the best song on this album. At the least, it’s got the best chorus — and maybe the best chorus I’ve heard on any hip-hop record in 2011. Some have compared it to some Stevie Wonder-type ish. The imagery and analogy they use is absolutely perfect. “No one’s in the lighthouse, face-down in the ocean…” The keys, bass and general airiness, makes you really feel like you’re in the ocean, or at least hovering over the Atlantic or the Pacific; it feels blue, but is the album’s clear plateau.
9. I Remember – Signaling the album’s winding down, Black offers up more verses of reflection. Some strings add a nice touch.
10. Tip The Scale (Feat. Dice Raw) – The final “hip-hop” cut is the perfect conclusion to this fictional narrative, as Redford contemplates suicide via Dice Raw’s chorus, and contemplates his life’s worth. “On the side of suicide, heads or tails,” he asks.
11-14. Redford (1st Movement); Possibility (2nd Movement); Will To Power (3rd Movement); Finality (4th Movement) — These are orchestral pieces, called Redford’s Movements, that I’m really in no position to be a fair critic of. I can tell you that they sound beautiful, and provide a great closing to the dark story of Redford Stephens.