The cover of The Roots “undun” reminds me of a Black Thought rhyme from their “Organix” days, when he promised to “rip the vocal backflip” for his city of Philadelphia for no other reason besides the fact that “the kid is a bad bro.” It’s possible some people forgot how sweet and badass the “all the way live, from the 2-1-5” kids were though, given that following the release of “How I Got Over” they took up permanent residence as Jimmy Fallon’s jam band on the late night TV talk show airwaves. Giving Michele Bachmann a dose of hip-hop justice by playing Fishbone’s “Lying Ass Bitch” for her entrance on Fallon’s show may have earned them the ire of both the host and NBC, but for me it was a pleasant reminder the crew could still push buttons.

“undun” is exactly the kind of raw uncut rap one would expect from the greatest hip-hop band of the modern era, although it also includes a reference to their changing career direction. We’ll get to that in a moment though. The first thing that stands out to me is that this if you don’t include EP releases, this may be the shortest Roots release to date, clocking in at just under 39 minutes. The second thing that’s inescapable is that this is purposefully designed to be a “concept album,” telling a life story from start to finish, much like the unheralded Organized Konfusion album “Equinox.” The opening track may at first sound like a modem’s dial tone, but it’s actually a flatline for the mother of the story’s protagonist, one Redford Stephens. As he comes of age and learns to hustle to survive, “Make My” tells the tale with a little help from Big K.R.I.T. and Dice Raw. As usual though even on a Roots track with strong cameos, Black Thought’s presence and verbals stand out:

“Tryin to control the fits of panic
Unwritten and unraveled, it’s the dead man’s pedantic
Whatever, see it’s really just a matter of semantics
When everybody’s fresh out of collateral to damage
And, my splayin got me +praying+ like a +mantis+
I begin to vanish, feel the pull of the blank canvas
I’m contemplatin, that special dedication
to whoever it concern, my letter of resignation
Fadin, back to black, my dark coronation
The heat of the day, the long robe of muerte
That soul’s in the atmosphere like airplay
If there’s a Heaven I can’t find a +Stairway+”

The one person who probably comes in on par with Thought in any cameo is Phonte, who excels on the excellent song “One Time.” This is my second favorite joint on this far too short CD – the hard drumming of ?uestlove and piano jammy jamming to it make for a classic headnodder you could have found on any Roots CD of old. The throwback funk of “Kool On” is as good if not better though, and once again the guests are well chosen as Greg Porn and Truck North do not disappoint – the former in particular is someone I need to keep my eye on. Thought is an unstoppable and untoppable force though, displaying his precise lyrical attack in the middle of the track:

“Yo, I’m never sleepin like I’m on methamphetamines
Move like my enemy ten steps ahead of me
Say my reputation precedes me like a pedigree
Gentlemanly gangster steez, beyond the seventies
Holdin fast money without runnin out of patience
Move in silence, without runnin up in places
Cake by the layers, rich but never famous
Hustle anonymous still remain nameless
In hindsight, gold come in bars like a Klondike
The minute before the storm hit is what I’m calm like
Suited and booted for a shootin like it’s prom night
It’s suicide, right? Pursuers tried like
to no avail and a hero’s what they died like
I got ’em waitin on the news like I’m Cronkite
Not in the limelight, or needed for the crime right
No boasts, just bodied and chalked close to the line tight”

This is the peak of the album though. Other than a resurgence near the end for “Tip the Scale,” the songs get progressively shorter and shorter, ultimately leading to an instrumental quarter at the end to close out Redford’s story. One shouldn’t read that as implying the other songs after “Kool On” are bad, rather that they are digested so quickly that they don’t make the impact musically or lyrically of the earlier work. “Stomp” certainly lives up to its title, and even though there have been more “let’s reminisce” tracks in hip-hop than you can shake a stick at, Black Thought’s “I Remember” is both worth the time and an important chapter in Mr. Redford’s story, which in this album’s short span comes to a tragic yet expected end.

If one can express disappointment in “undun,” it’s that it sets out to tell a story and tells it well, but delivers a short story or a novella where fans of The Roots would have undoubtedly preferred a full length novel. It almost feels like they skipped a few chapters, or that an overzealous editor deleted them, but that’s hard to accept given The Roots continued their long-standing practice of numbering each song sequentially. That makes the closer “Finality (4th Movement)” track #170 in their career, though much like the numbering of UFC pay-per-views that’s selectively skipping events and “half steps” here and there to derive a conclusion. Regardless this is The Roots of 2011 though – having to make their point quickly in a shorter amount of time, much like choosing to play Fishbone for Michelle Bachmann moments before she came on stage. It would be false to say that it doesn’t work, but as a critic AND a fan, I still want more of what the Illadelph’s funkiest have in store.

The Roots :: undun
8Overall Score