Imagine your iPod as a family reunion. The elders like Ice-T are complaining about those bratty-ass Bebe’s Kids like Soulja Boy running amok. Eminem is the black sheep that made good for himself. DMX is the enigmatic screw-up that can’t stay out of jail or in rehab. And The Roots are that standard-bearing cousin that you’re always being compared to: the one that graduated from college, got a great job on Jimmy Fallon’s show, has a shelf full of awards and accolades to go with reservoirs of industry love and street cred, and a bitchin’ afro.
The Roots’ success gives them latitude to experiment with concept albums, which are usually crap shoots that conjure cringe-worthy images of the drummer thinking he can sing and the manager hopping on the harmonica for an interpretation of his favorite children’s book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. The Roots forgo the gimmicks on Undun, which centers around the fictional Redford Stephens, who derives from Sufjan Stevens’ heralded soundscape “Redford”. Many rap albums tell the stories of wannabe Sosas, Montanas, and Barksdales, but Undun is about the Wallaces, the sympathetic young dealer with visions of material riches but is unprepared for the mental and physical hells that he has to go through to get there.
Right off, we learn Redford doesn’t survive the album in “Sleep”. No happy ending, no redemption, no success story. Instead, the young man is laying face-down in a pool of blood as his ghost wonders if his family will even remember him. From this point, Redford works backward through his motives and experiences as a dealer and the internal conflict that the lifestyle caused him. Dice Raw on “One Time” breaks down to the bare essence of why Redford is out in the streets:
“Cause out here, yo you n***** can’t belly flop
If you wanna make the noise inside your belly stop.”
Black Thought argues that fighting the good fight just doesn’t pay on “The Other Side”, causing Redford to turn to crime to get by:
“You might say I could be doing something positive
Humble head down low and broke like promises
Soaking and broken in a joke like comics is
Not enough paper to be paying folks compliments
But when that paper got low so did my tolerance
And it ain’t no truth in a dare without the consequence.”
Keeping himself fed is the bare minimum motivation for Redford’s actions, as there are plenty of perks associated with being a drug dealer, as explored in the funky guitar-driven “Kool On”, the album’s oasis of celebration in a desert of drug addiction, violence, and isolation. Redford struggles to justify the hurt he causes, and seeing the world around him, he realizes that he’s just a lowly pawn stuck in an unforgiving cycle, a soldier of the street with an 8th grade diploma that Thought mentions in “Tip the Scale”. This reality leads to him contemplating suicide, convinced that nobody would care or even notice that he was gone. Redford ultimately becomes a homicide statistic before he’s able to extricate himself from his fast life, or his life in general.
Undun isn’t something you’ll play randomly. The gloomy score out-darks Game Theory and Rising Down, and takes a back seat to the tragic story. The last four tracks are instrumentals that aren’t as depressing, including Stevens’ “Redford” and the frantic jazz of “Will to Power (3rd Movement)”. The Roots are hip-hop for grown-ups, and they use Undun to tell a story that takes maturity to absorb. Grown-ups know that real life doesn’t have a hero saving the day in the end, and there is no salvation for Redford until it’s too late. The Roots recognize that their audience can handle the story and the concept, and it’s a story worth hearing, happy endings be damned.