The Roots – Undun
by Nick Hugon (International Affairs), published December 8th 2011
Moldy | Stale | Edible | Fresh | Tasty!
When Spin, Slant, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Billboard, and Time all call Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy the best album of 2010, you can be fairly confident that it will be considered – at least critically – the new standard for modern hip-hop. While its brilliance can be found in its bombastic lyrics and thunderous production, Fantasy was introspective and brutally honest, and as you’d expect from the controversial icon, the fantasy is, as the record’s name would suggest, very much West’s own.
A year and a handful days after Fantasy, we find ourselves with this: The Roots’ tenth studio album. In the same way that the full band of Philadelphia’s iconic crew is an 8-man personality foil to West’s solo juggernaut of significance, Undun is the stylistic antithesis of Fantasy.
On Undun, The Roots are storytellers, spinning the tale of Redford Stephens, a fictional embodiment of a tragic criminal hero who escapes his impoverished life of crime to be underwhelmed by the ill-begotten fortune he discovers. The story is told backwards, starting with “Sleep,” in which Black Thought murmurs Stephens’ deathbed reflection, “Oh, there I go from a man to a memory. Damn, I wonder if my fam’ will remember me.”
The disillusioned Stephens realizes the folly of his fortune on “Make My” (“They told me that the ends won’t justify the means”), and he eventually descends his own material ladder back to the depression of “Lighthouse” and “I Remember” before an intimate instrumental outro that features guest composition from Sufjan Stevens.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasty is the farce that is Kanye West’s life. Undun is the reality of the voices you don’t hear; the lives of the people that don’t get to rant out of turn at awards shows or on national television. It is a story of people whose problems aren’t products of their own character flaws, but rather of the environment they were handed. Undun is a masterpiece conceived with humble respect for its subject and executed with absolutely baffling grace.
Recommended Tracks: Sleep, Make My, One Time, Stomp, Lighthouse, I Remember