In what has become a rich and diverse array of conscious hip-hop artists to have emerged since the 1990s, The Roots have always held a strong position with both critics and fans. Since their self-released debut Organix! in 1993, the Philadelphia group has responded to the violence and misogyny of gangsta rap with creative instrumentation and politically savvy lyricism, which has won them a devoted following and an ever-growing commerical profile.
Their 13th LP Undun takes the form of a concept album examining the life – or rather the death – of a young man named Redford Stephens. What is intriguing is that the story is told in reverse – not unlike Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed noir Memento – beginning with his death and then examining the circumstances which led our protagonist to his fate.
Instrumentally, The Roots are as solid as ever. ?uestlove’s tight drum beats and the soulful arrangements have always been at the centre of the band’s listenability, and here they are expanded with darker and often sombre string and choral arragangements to provide a backing which is both urban and cinematic in scale. Yet the true heart of the album is of course the storytelling. Lyrically, chief MC Black Thought skillfully paints an empathetic portrait of Stephens’s struggle to live in an oppressive urban environment, with frequent collaborators like Dice Raw and up-and-coming rapper Big K.R.I.T. giving a range of voices to the story.
The focus on the day-to-day struggles of an urban figure is key to the power of Undun. The inexorability of Stephen’s fate and, saddeningly, the all too familiar nature of his story is a strong reminder that, for many, this album is a reality – condemned to become just another statistic in an environment devoid of the hope or opportunity so promised by ‘The American Dream’. Undun is an elegiac snapshot of a single life, but one which rings true for many, many more. And one which has inspired one of The Roots’s most accomplished efforts to date.