|Studio album by|
|Released||December 2, 2011|
|Studio||A House Called Quest, daCrib, and The Boom Room in Philadelphia; Downtown Music Studios and MSR Studios in 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. Undun received widespread acclaim from 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.
Music and lyrics
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.
"Illegal activity controls my black symphony
Orchestrated like it happened incidentally
Oh, there I go, from a man to a memory
Damn, I wonder if my fam will remember me"
— Black Thought on "Sleep"
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 your life is definitely gonna be affected by your surroundings, statistically."
The concept 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)" from his album Michigan 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 reception
|The A.V. Club||A|
|The Daily Telegraph|||
Undun was released by Def Jam Recordings, first on December 2, 2011, in continental Europe, then on December 5 in the United Kingdom, and on 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 1978 Charles Burnett film Killer of Sheep. The album's lead single, "Make My" featuring Big K.R.I.T., was first released on November 1 to iTunes. When undun was released in the US, it debuted at number 17 on the Billboard 200 and sold 48,200 copies in its first week. By January 2012, it had sold 112,000 copies there.
Undun was met with widespread critical acclaim. 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 ideas "grave and penetrating". James Lachno from The Daily Telegraph was highly impressed by its music and how The Roots avoid "over-moralising or glorification". Los Angeles Times writer Ernest Hardy said the record offers "a psychological depth and complexity rarely afforded black folks in modern pop culture, including (or especially) the borough of contemporary hip-hop." Jon Pareles, writing in The New York Times, said it is "complete in itself ... made brief to be listened to as a whole." In the Chicago Tribune, Greg Kot cited Undun as The Roots' best work and called it "both chilling and beautiful at once". At the end of 2011, Kot named it the year's second best album, while Ann Powers from NPR Music ranked it tenth on her year-end list.
In a less enthusiastic review for Rolling Stone, Jody Rosen said Black Thought's "skilled but stolid rapping adds nothing new to the idiom" of the "morally ambiguous gangster tale", even though undun succeeds musically. 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". Robert Christgau was also critical of the concept in his review for MSN Music, feeling that the song cycle lacks a feel for its fictional character, although he said the album showcases a sound from The Roots "that shows no sign of standing pat" and "flashes of insight and articulated feeling" from Black Thought rather than wisdom.
|157.||"Dun"||Ray Angry, Ahmir Thompson||Questlove, Angry||1:16|
|158.||"Sleep"||Nicolas Koenig-Dzialowski, Thompson, Tariq Trotter, Aaron Livingston||Questlove, Hot Sugar||2:15|
|159.||"Make My" (featuring Big K.R.I.T. & Dice Raw)||Khari Mateen, Trotter, Thompson, Angry, Justin Scott, Karl Jenkins||Questlove, Mateen, Angry||4:27|
|160.||"One Time" (featuring Phonte & Dice Raw)||Brent Reynolds, Jenkins, Trotter, Thompson, Phonte Coleman||Questlove, Reynolds||3:55|
|161.||"Kool On" (featuring Greg Porn & Truck North)||Gregory Spearman, Jamal Miller, Trotter, Dewayne Julius Rogers Sr.||Questlove||3:48|
|162.||"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|
|163.||"Stomp" (featuring Greg Porn & Just Blaze)||Trotter, Spearman, Deleno Matthews, Levar Coppin||Sean C & LV||2:23|
|164.||"Lighthouse" (featuring Dice Raw)||Richard Friedrich, Thompson, Jenkins, Trotter||Questlove, Friedrich||3:43|
|165.||"I Remember"||Mateen, Trotter, Thompson||Questlove, Mateen||3:15|
|166.||"Tip the Scale" (featuring Dice Raw)||Thompson, Angry, Wright, Jenkins, Trotter, Morris||Questlove, Angry, Nichols, Mateen||4:17|
|167.||"Redford" (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)||Sufjan Stevens||Stevens||1:52|
|168.||"Possibility" (2nd Movement)||Angry, Thompson, Nichols||Questlove, Angry, Nichols||0:55|
|169.||"Will to Power" (3rd Movement)||D.D. Jackson, Thompson||Questlove, D.D. Jackson||1:03|
|170.||"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|
- Kellman, Andy. "Undun – The Roots". AllMusic. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved December 3, 2011.
- "The Roots Present: an undun performance..." (Press release). Jill Newman Productions. November 2011. Archived from the original on 2011-12-03. Retrieved 2011-12-03.
- Goodman, William (November 1, 2011). "?uestlove Explains How SPIN and Sufjan Inspired the Roots' 'undun'". Spin. Retrieved 2013-04-28.
- Undun (CD liner). The Roots. New York City: Def Jam Recordings. 2011. B0016282-02.
- Fox, Killian (December 6, 2011). "The Roots: Undun – review". The Observer. Guardian News and Media Limited. Retrieved 2011-12-04.
- Boles, Benjamin (December 1, 2011). "The Roots - Undun". NOW. NOW Communications. Retrieved 2011-12-03.
- Moore, Marcus J. (December 1, 2011). "Review of The Roots - undun". BBC Music. BBC. Retrieved 2011-12-03.
- Hardy, Ernest (December 5, 2011). "Album review: The Roots' 'undun'". Los Angeles Times. Tribune Company. Retrieved 2011-12-06.
- Karlsson, Jens (November 29, 2011). "The Roots: Undun". Sonic (in Swedish). Sampler Media. Retrieved 2011-12-03.
- Cohen, Ian (December 6, 2011). "The Roots, 'undun' (Def Jam)". Spin. SPIN Media. Archived from the original on December 8, 2011. Retrieved December 6, 2011.
- Deviant (December 9, 2011). "The Roots - undun (staff review)". Sputnikmusic. Retrieved 2011-12-13.
- Capobianco, Ken (December 6, 2011). "The Roots, 'Undun' - Arts". The Boston Globe. The New York Times Company. Retrieved 2011-12-06.
- Cheers, Imani M. (November 30, 2011). "The Roots Get Conceptual on 'undun'". PBS NewsHour. PBS. Retrieved April 27, 2013.
- Richards, Chris (December 5, 2011). "The Roots' 'undun' is filled with evocative hip-hop". Washington Post. The Washington Post Company. Retrieved April 28, 2013.
- Madden, Mike (December 6, 2011). "The Roots Have Made A Concept Album. And It's Good!". Time.com. Time Inc. Retrieved April 27, 2013.
- Touré (November 30, 2011). "Who Killed It: Don't "Sleep" On Black Thought". Complex. Retrieved April 27, 2013.
- Houghton, Edwin (December 6, 2011). "?uestlove Breaks Down The Roots undun". Okayplayer. Retrieved April 27, 2013.
- Murphy, Keith (November 25, 2011). "The Roots Say 'Undun' Taught 'Patience,' TV 'Made Us Better'". The Boombox. AOL. Retrieved April 27, 2013.
- Moon, Tom (December 6, 2011). "The Roots: A Song Cycle For a Life Cycle". NPR Music. NPR. Retrieved April 27, 2013.
- Boshomane, Pearl (December 7, 2011). "Album review: The Roots - Undun". The Sunday Times. Times Media Group. Retrieved April 27, 2013.
- Semon, Craig (January 19, 2012). "Roots come 'undun' in spectacular fashion". Telegram & Gazette. Retrieved April 27, 2013.
- Kenner, Rob (November 25, 2011). "Album Preview: The Roots "Undun"". Retrieved April 27, 2013.
- Gill, Andy (December 1, 2011). "Album: The Roots, Undun (Mercury)". The Independent. Independent Print Limited. Archived from the original on December 5, 2011. Retrieved December 3, 2011.
- Stairiker, Kevin (May 29, 2012). "Even After 25 Years, The Roots Are Still Pushing Boundaries". Jumpphilly.com. Retrieved April 29, 2013.
- Questlove (November 21, 2011). "'undun': The Story Of A Gifted Black Youth Unravels". Huffington Post. Retrieved April 29, 2013.
- Vozick-Levinson, Simon (November 15, 2011). "The Roots Set to Deliver Their 'Most Realized' Album Yet". Rolling Stone. Retrieved April 28, 2013.
- Brown, Hilary (January 2012). "The Roots, Undun (Def Jam)". Down Beat. Retrieved April 28, 2013.
- Ghansah, Rachel Kaadzi (December 14, 2011). "Don't let the green grass fool you: The Roots are one of the most respected hip-hop acts in the world; why can't they leave the sad stuff alone?". Capital. Retrieved April 28, 2013.
- Patrin, Nate (December 6, 2011). "The Roots: Undun". Pitchfork. Retrieved December 6, 2011.
- Khawaja, Asad (February 5, 2012). "Reviews previews: Undun by The Roots". Dawn. Dawn Group of Newspapers. Retrieved April 27, 2013.
- "undun by The Roots reviews". AnyDecentMusic?. Retrieved January 26, 2017.
- "Reviews for Undun by The Roots". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved December 3, 2011.
- Rabin, Nathan (December 6, 2011). "The Roots: Undun". The A.V. Club. Onion, Inc. Retrieved December 6, 2011.
- Kot, Greg (December 2, 2011). "Roots album review; Undun reviewed". Chicago Tribune. Tribune Company. Retrieved December 3, 2011.
- Lachno, James (December 2, 2011). "The Roots: Undun, CD review". The Daily Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group. Retrieved December 3, 2011.
- Anderson, Kyle (December 2, 2011). "undun". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved September 26, 2016.
- Christgau, Robert (December 6, 2011). "The Roots/Action Bronson". MSN Music. Microsoft. Retrieved December 7, 2011.
- Rosen, Jody (December 6, 2011). "undun". Rolling Stone. Wenner Media. Retrieved December 6, 2011.
- "The Roots - Undun". lescharts.com. Hung Medien. Retrieved 2011-12-04.
- "Undun / [Explicit]: The Roots: Music". Amazon.com. Retrieved 2011-12-03.
- Moore, Jacob (2011-11-01). "Album Cover: The Roots "Undun"". Complex. Retrieved 2013-04-26.
- DeLuca, Dan (2011-12-04). "Roots reach a creative height in 'undun'". Philly.com. Philadelphia Media Network. Retrieved 2013-04-26.
- Mahfix, Alif Omar (2012-01-11). "The Roots: Undun". Juice Online. MSN. Retrieved 2013-04-26.
- Montana, Gina (December 14, 2011). "Drake's Take Care Drops to No. 7 on 200 Chart, Roots Undun Debuts at No. 17". XXL. Harris Publications. Retrieved 2011-12-21.
- Jacobs, Allen (February 1, 2012). "Hip Hop Album Sales: The Week Ending 1/29/2011". HipHopDX. Retrieved February 1, 2011.
- Pareles, Jon (December 7, 2011). "The Roots - 2 Albums, One Quest". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved 2011-12-21.
- Kot, Greg (December 2, 2011). "Top albums of 2011; Wild Flag top album of 2011". Chicago Tribune. Tribune Company. Retrieved 2011-12-02.
- Powers, Ann (December 7, 2011). "Ann Powers' 10 Favorite Albums of 2011 : All Songs Considered Blog". NPR Music. NPR. Retrieved 2011-12-10.
- "The Roots - Undun". hitparade.ch. Hung Medien. Retrieved 2012-04-08.
- "Undun - The Roots". Billboard. Prometheus Global Media. Retrieved 2012-04-08.