By Jay Fingers
Concept albums are rare creatures to be found in the world of hip-hop. In fact, the last notable rap album to bill itself as such was Jay-Z‘s American Gangster, and while it was critical and commercial success, it played hard and loose with the very rules that define exactly what a concept album is supposed to be. Thankfully, when the crown jewel of Philly hip-hop, The Roots, announced their upcoming project Undun was to be a concept album, their efforts proved to hew a little more closely to our expectations.
According to press materials, “Undun” is an “existential telling of the short life of one Redford Stephens.”
As Questlove stated on Okayplayer:
[It] is the story of this kid who becomes criminal, but he wasn’t born criminal. He’s not the nouveau exotic primitive bug-eyed gunrunner like Tupac’s character Bishop in Juice… he’s actually thoughtful and is neither victim nor hero. Just some kid who begins to order his world in a way that makes the most sense to him at a given moment.
The tale begins with Redford’s death and tells his story in reverse chronology, exploring the circumstances and decisions the character made which led to his untimely fate. It’s certainly a story we’ve all heard, read, and seen before, but perhaps not in this manner. Exploring themes of free will and predestination and drawing inspiration from a variety of sources, including (but not limited to) the work of Sufjan Stevens and HBO’s The Wire, Undun is quite a compelling work.
01 “Dun” – N/A
The album’s first track is merely the sound of a flatlined heart monitor. That’s not a spoiler—from the beginning, we already know Redford, the album’s protagonist, is dead. What we’ll find out after this track is how he got there.
02 “Sleep” – B
With its Hitchcock, Public Enemy, and Geto Boys references, the horn-driven “Sleep” begins Undun on a rather paranoid note. The ending couplet is powerful in that Redford wonders if he will be remembered by his loved ones after his death.
03 “Make My” (featuring Big K.R.I.T. and Dice Raw) – B+
Mississippi everyman Big K.R.I.T. assists Black Thought and Dice Raw in this rumination on whether life and its struggles are worth the effort. As the hook proclaims, “They told me that the ends/Won’t justify the means/They told me at the end/Don’t justify the dreams/That I’ve had since a child.” A very soulful, if melancholic, track.
04 “One Time” featuring Phonte and Dice Raw – B+
Phonte opens up this hard-hitting, piano-driven track which explores the pressures of street life. Dice Raw not only sings the hook but contributes a verse at the end, but the song belongs to Black Thought who communicates Redford’s point of view with inventive imagery. “Capture this moment in time/It’s smash and grab.” It’s nearly impossible to leave criminal thoughts behind.
05 “Kool On” featuring P.O.R.N. and Truck North – A-
Perhaps the funkiest and most upbeat song on Undun, BT is flanked by newcomers Greg Porn and Truck North guest starring as street hustlers celebrating their newly acquired riches. But really, is there anything worth celebrating? Even with a “gentlemanly gangsta steez beyond the 70s,” Redford knows he’s still got to watch his back. The song is built upon an infectious and incredibly funky guitar loop and filtered vocal sample.
06 “The OtherSide” featuring Bilal and P.O.R.N. – A
Redford knows he deserves the finer things—and dammit, he’s going to go after them. Black Thought’s energetic flow and hungry delivery put us right in Redford’s mind, detailing his desire to “make an entrance” and get “cheese like omelets,” even if the consequences leave him hellbound. Bilal’s gospel-tinged hook has a double meaning: “Always felt like I deserved more/But when I make it to the other side/That’s when we’ll settle up the score.” The other side, as in leaving the “have-nots” and becoming a “have”? Or, as in leaving this life and going to the next?
07 “Stomp” featuring Greg Porn and Just Blaze — B
On this guitar-driven track, Redford’s just about had it with his situation. He’s tired of living and barely surviving, so he’s about to do whatever it takes to get ahead, even if his family won’t understand his decisions. Just Blaze provides a stellar, thunderous backdrop for BT and P.O.R.N.’s rhymes and gets his filtered rant on during the hook.
08 “Lighthouse” featuring Dice Raw – B-
A rumination on lost friendships and, as a result, having no one in your corner, especially when you need them. “And no one’s in the lighthouse/And it seems like you just screamed/It’s no one there to hear the sound/And it may feel like there’s no one there/That cares if you drown/Face down in the ocean.” Noteworthy for the strong performance from Dice Raw.
09 “I Remember” — A
One of the best songs on the album, this brooding walk down memory lane finds our protagonist reminiscing on past friendships, old stomping grounds, and (maybe) his complicity in a friend’s murder. “Now I can never chill/What’s keeping me from breaking out like Benadryl/When my baptism of fire resulted in a kill/Sometimes it’s as cut and dry as a business deal/You gotta cause the blood of a close friend to spill/But you remember still.” Chilling stuff.
10 “Tip The Scale” featuring Dice Raw – B
On this track, Redford lets you know right away what his M.O. is—he’s trying to tip the scale in his favor: “I never take off cause I got a job/Rob Peter to pay Paul/Now I realize it’s the winner that takes all/Do what I gotta do because I can’t take loss.” Survival, by any means necessary.
The album closes with a four-song suite of instrumentals that sum up the stages of Redford’s life.
11 “Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)” – A
It’s a simple yet beautiful piano medley.
12 “Possibility (2nd Movement)” – B+
Another piano melody, accompanied by heartbreaking strings.
13 “Will To Power (3rd Movement)” – B
A cacophonous track that doubtlessly represents the fear, paranoia, and general chaos of Redford’s life.
14 “Finality” — A-
And in death, Redford is finally at peace … or is he?
Overall Grade: B+
Best Tracks: “Kool On,” “The OtherSide,” “I Remember”
Our Recommendation: (MODERATE) BUY
Though Undun is a sobering cautionary tale, it is, as stated earlier, one we’ve heard countless times before. Yet the strong lyrics, no-frills delivery, and commanding mic presence from Black Thought, the dope production, and the album’s focus on the character’s existential struggles make this album stand out from the pack.
Liner Note and other related images from Undun:
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