|Studio album by The Roots|
|Released||December 2, 2011|
|Recorded||A House Called Quest, daCrib, The Boom Room
Downtown Music Studios, MSR Studios
(New York, New York)
|Genre||Alternative hip hop|
|Producer||Ray Angry, Rick Friedrich, D.D. Jackson, Khari Mateen, Richard Nichols (exec.), James Poyser, Brent "Ritz" Reynolds, Sean C & LV, Sufjan Stevens, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson|
|The Roots chronology|
|Singles from Undun|
Undun is the tenth studio album by American hip hop band The Roots, released on December 2, 2011, by Def Jam Recordings. Recording sessions for the album took place at several recording locations in Philadelphia and New York City. Production was handled primarily by Questlove, record producer and drummer for the band.
Undun incorporates neo soul and indie music elements. It is an existential concept album about the short, tragic life of fictional character Redford Stevens, set in urban poverty, and is told through a reverse-chronological narrative.
The album performed modestly on music charts and sold 112,000 copies in the United States. Upon its release, Undun received acclaim from music critics, who praised its existential subject matter, production quality, and the band's musicianship. It was included on several critics' year-end lists of best albums.
Background and recording
At the time of recording, The Roots comprised lead rapper Black Thought, drummer and producer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, keyboardists Kamal Gray and James Poyser, percussionist F. Knuckles, guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas, sousaphonist Damon Bryson, and bassist Mark Kelley. The band also worked with other rappers for the album, including Big K.R.I.T., Dice Raw, Phonte, and Truck North, as well as vocalists such as Aaron Livingston and Bilal.
Questlove said that the band benefited from the security and practice time provided by their job as the house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Working for NBC, the band is expected to write "short, concise songs, even if they don't get used on air. We have to create three to seven songs every day." Many of these short pieces were used for Undun. Questlove said the new practice space refocused the band's songwriting style, which was previously dependent on jamming during soundchecks on tour. Questlove said the financial stability of the new job also allowed The Roots to be more musically adventurous: "we could finally follow all those crazy ideas that we've had without fear of being dropped by our label... Now we have a safety net. Our Def Jam life is now an evening job. We now have the comfort and confidence to start making the albums we want to make. That's why undun feels like our second album. There's no pressure."
The album was recorded and mixed primarily at Downtown Music Studios in New York City and the Philadelphia recording locations A House Called Quest, daCrib, and The Boom Room. The track "Will to Power (3rd Movement)" was recorded and mixed at MSR Studios in New York City. Undun was mastered at The Mastering Palace in New York City.
Undun is an existential concept album about the fictional character Redford Stevens, who is named after a Sufjan Stevens song. Its reverse-chronological narrative discusses his short, tragic life set in urban poverty. Expanding on the indie influence of the band's How I Got Over (2010), the album's music is characterized by snare-driven beats, neo soul elements, keyboard soundscapes, strings, choral arrangements, and tight dynamics.
The plot of the album takes place in reverse over the course of a day in Redford's life, with the multiple featured rappers all speaking from Redford's first-person perspective. The album opens with the sound of a flatlined EKG on the instrumental track "Dun", signifying Redford's death. This leads into the second track, "Sleep", where Black Thought's verse portrays Redford's dying thoughts on his life, fate and whether he will be remembered. "Make My" depicts the killing of Redford, with an extended outro modeled on Mobb Deep's "Shook Ones (Part II)" that conveys Redford's spirit beginning to leave his body.
"One Time" finds Redford feeling remorse and contemplating the course of his life; he reflects on the time that he stopped caring about school. "Kool On" and "The OtherSide" depict Redford living successfully as a drug dealer. "Kool On" hints that Redford is deluding himself, and the song's lyrics are about "how successful street hustlers might fool themselves in believing they are living the 'good life' but, in reality, 'living on borrowed time.'" "Stomp" is meant to be the song on which "he's either gonna live or he’s gonna die with whatever path he has chosen to go down." While Redford feels that he has been forced into crime, he is also decisively choosing his path. On "Lighthouse", Redford contemplates suicide, and the song's hook "there’s no one in the lighthouse/Face down in the ocean" is a metaphor for Redford being caught up in crime and questioning the direction of his life. Redford recalls his life before crime on "I Remember". "Tip the Scale" explores "how the odds are already stacked against a black man growing up in the ghetto even before he is born".
The album is concluded with a four-part instrumental movement. Part one is Sufjan Stevens performing his "Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)", originally from the album Michigan; part two has a string quartet reinterpret the song. Part three is a free jazz performance by Questlove and pianist D. D. Jackson. The album concludes with the fourth part, another string quartet piece that ends abruptly with an unresolved piano chord. Roots manager Richard Nichols described the final four tracks as a "birth-cycle" and said "It’s almost like he was undone upon birth ... your outcome of you life is definitely gonna be affected by your surroundings, statistically."
The conceit of following the story of a central character, Redford Stevens, on the album was the idea of band manager Richard Nichols. According to Questlove, the album's protagonist Redford is "the prototypical urban kid — young, gifted, black, and unraveling before our eyes," and is based on "a combination of maybe four to five people that we know in Philadelphia." Regarding the character, Black Thought said, "Redford's story isn't uncommon in Philadelphia ... I remember not being able to imagine being alive as a 30-year-old. I didn't know many people who had lived to 30." Inspiration for Redford was also culled from the Sufjan Stevens song "Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)" and the character Avon Barksdale from TV series The Wire. Some sources have interpreted Redford as an African-American everyman, though others have cautioned against this view, emphasizing his individual characteristics. For instance, Hilary Brown of Down Beat called Redford "a romantic, not a thug; a philosopher, not an everyman," and Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah wrote "The mistake is to read Redford as being like anyone who has their back to the wall, or to see the album’s narrative as a universal story."
By focusing the narrative on an ordinary middleman in the drug trade, Questlove said the band attempted to subvert rap music genre conventions, which often glamorize a life of crime with a powerful "Don Corleone" figure. Pitchfork's Nate Patrin said the album "isn't a sprawling, rise-and-fall crime story, not a condemnation or a veneration of a man living outside the law, not a bullet-riddled grand guignol heavy on explicit details of soldiers getting cut down. It's a character study of a man whose existential crisis ends only with his death—a death gone largely unspecified, the glamor and tragedy washed over with a doomed resignation." Asad Khawaja wrote that the willingness to stray from genre norms enhanced the album's dramatic realism: "Rather than fall prey to the hip-hop illusions of high life grandeur, The Roots weaves a tale of spiralling downward, made all the more poignant by a character wholly self-aware of his Faustian bargain."
Release and promotion
The album was released by Def Jam Recordings, with distribution from Universal Music Distribution. It was released on December 2 in continental Europe, December 5 in the United Kingdom, and December 6 in the United States. The cover art is a black-and-white rendering of the photo "Flying High" by documentary photographer Jamel Shabazz, which depicts a child flipping on a mattress outdoors. The cover art has been compared to the 1977 Charles Burnett film Killer of Sheep.
|The A.V. Club||A|
Undun received universal acclaim from music critics. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the album received an average score of 88, based on 32 reviews. Allmusic editor Andy Kellman praised its "existential rhymes" and found its "ruminations [...] grave and penetrating". James Lachno of The Daily Telegraph praised its music as "astounding" and commended The Roots for avoiding "over-moralising or glorification". Los Angeles Times writer Ernest Hardy characterized the album as "both bleak and unexpectedly beautiful" and stated, "The result is a psychological depth and complexity rarely afforded black folks in modern pop culture, including (or especially) the borough of contemporary hip-hop." David Amidon of PopMatters found the album "full of exciting ideas musically and lyrically", and said that it "truly signals [that] the Roots are [...] capable of maturing with grace, pride and praise-worthy work". Chicago Tribune writer Greg Kot cited the album as The Roots' best work and called it "both chilling and beautiful at once". Nathan Rabin of The A.V. Club dubbed it "the culmination of everything it has worked toward musically and lyrically [...] a subtly assured magnum opus". Jon Pareles, writing in The New York Times, complimented said that undun is "complete in itself ... made brief to be listened to as a whole."
In a mixed review, Dave Simpson of The Guardian wrote that it "isn't [quite] the magnum opus it could be" and that its second half "loses impetus". Pitchfork Media's Nate Patrin found the storyline's "inevitable familiarity" to be "almost an end in itself" and that it "feels almost relentless in its singleminded dejection". Ian Cohen of Spin found Black Thought's reading of Redford Stephens "business-like" and "consummately bland". Jody Rosen, writing in Rolling Stone, felt that his "skilled but stolid rapping adds nothing new to the idiom" of the "morally ambiguous gangster tale", even though undun is "a knockout" musically. MSN Music's Robert Christgau gave the album a "B+", indicating "remarkable one way or another, yet also flirts with the humdrum or the half-assed." He felt that its song cycle lacks a feel for its fictional character and instead showcases a sound from The Roots "that shows no sign of standing pat."
The album debuted at number 17 on the US Billboard 200 chart, with first-week sales of 48,200 copies in the United States. As of January 2012, Undun had sold 112,000 copies in the United States. The album also charted in Switzerland, reaching number 30 and spending four weeks on the Swiss Albums Chart.
In his year-end list of best albums, Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune ranked the album number two and commented, "In its third decade, the Philadelphia hip-hop octet releases its best, most ambitious album". NPR Music's Stephen Thompson ranked it number nine on his list of 10 Favorite Albums of 2011, writing that "you wouldn't expect the group to keep making records as provocative and vital as undun [...] the band still seems positively engorged with big ideas, riveting poetry and chops for miles." Ann Powers of NPR Music ranked it number 10 on her list, which she claims to have revised after listening to Undun. Nate Chinen of The New York Times ranked the album number eight on his list for 2011 and called it a "mother lode" of "dire narrative", writing that "the grooves insinuate rather than chug; the words disarm any concept-album pretensions. Even the instrumental coda hits its mark."
|1.||"Dun"||Ray Angry, Ahmir Thompson||Questlove, Angry||1:16|
|2.||"Sleep"||Nicolas Koenig-Dzialowski, Thompson, Tariq Trotter, Aaron Livingston||Questlove, Hot Sugar||2:15|
|3.||"Make My" (featuring Big K.R.I.T. & Dice Raw)||Khari Mateen, Trotter, Thompson, Angry, Justin Scott, Karl Jenkins||Questlove, Mateen, Angry||4:27|
|4.||"One Time" (featuring Phonte & Dice Raw)||Brent Reynolds, Jenkins, Trotter, Thompson, Phonte Coleman||Questlove, Reynolds||3:55|
|5.||"Kool On" (featuring Greg Porn & Truck North)||Gregory Spearman, Jamal Miller, Trotter, Dewayne Julius Rogers Sr.||Questlove||3:48|
|6.||"The OtherSide" (featuring Bilal & Greg Porn)||Thompson, Betty Wright, Jenkins, Trotter, Spearman, James Poyser, Angelo Morris, Sean McMillion, Ralph Jeanty||Questlove, Poyser, Richard Nichols||4:03|
|7.||"Stomp" (featuring Greg Porn & Just Blaze)||Trotter, Spearman, Deleno Matthews, Levar Coppin||Sean C & LV||2:23|
|8.||"Lighthouse" (featuring Dice Raw)||Richard Friedrich, Thompson, Jenkins, Trotter||Questlove, Friedrich||3:43|
|9.||"I Remember"||Mateen, Trotter, Thompson||Questlove, Mateen||3:15|
|10.||"Tip the Scale" (featuring Dice Raw)||Thompson, Angry, Wright, Jenkins, Trotter, Morris||Questlove, Angry, Nichols, Mateen||4:17|
|11.||"Redford" (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)||Sufjan Stevens||Stevens||1:52|
|12.||"Possibility" (2nd Movement)||Angry, Thompson, Nichols||Questlove, Angry, Nichols||0:55|
|13.||"Will to Power" (3rd Movement)||D.D. Jackson, Thompson||Questlove, D.D. Jackson||1:03|
|14.||"Finality" (4th Movement)||Angry, Thompson, Nichols||Questlove, Angry, Nichols||1:31|
Credits for Undun adapted from liner notes.
|Swiss Albums Chart||30|
|US Billboard 200||17|
|US Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums||4|
|US Billboard Top Rap Albums||2|
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