ALBUMS OF THE DECADE: The Roots’ ‘Undun’

MMC Writers reflect on their favorite records of the 2010s.

After landing their residency as the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in 2009, The Roots began writing brief song excerpts, 3 to 7 times a day, for the show, most of which never made it on the air, most of which became their 10th studio album: 2011’s Undun.

Saturated with wisdom, sensitivity and stomach-wrenching honesty, we spend a day in the life of a semi-fictional character named Redford Stevens, connecting his death with his birth into a world where he was undone from the get-go.

Thanks to their Late Night gig, the 20-year tenured band had some coin in pocket and the stability to do something experimentally adventurous. Questlove said at the time: “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.”

Undun is the backwards (literally) story of Redford, a young, gifted, black male who is born into poverty, pulled into crime and drug dealing, and ends up paying for it with his life. The album parallels the mythos of a Faustian trade (Faust sold his soul to the devil) with the drug trade. At many points Redford thinks existentially about his life and all the factors that led to this single day where he is killed.

Ultimately it climaxes as a social commentary on the realities of street life and statistical odds based on economic status. Emotionally stirring and extremely thought provoking, its a satire on glamour, gold and gangsta stereotypes romanticized by Hollywood and hip-hop industry.

How much deeper could this get? Way more! Undun isn’t just the story of Redford’s last day alive, but also the story of his birth and life, and the entire story is told in reverse chronological order. That’s right; to understand Undun fully you must listen to the entire album backwards.

Songs like “The OtherSide” and “Lighthouse” are unnervingly real. The Roots tend to write calm, collected jams, and this isn’t really ever necessarily that. Even on its strongest hooks and most titillating melodies the album’s somber nature and story keep the mood mellow and emotionally intense.

There are very few things in hip-hop that I love more than when rap references itself, but one of those things is when it references other genres. The always heady Roots take this to the extreme on Undun by basing an entire concept album off of a song off another concept album by a very ambiguous indie folk artist: Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan. Undun references both the song “Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)” and Stevens himself by naming their character Redford Stevens (see what they did there?). They also conclude the album with the “Redford Suite,” featuring Stevens’ song and three other instrumental movements.

This unlikely crossover is super pleasing to any music fanatic, especially because the song “Redford” would appear to have no connection to the story of Redford, given that it has no words. This is a major testament to the creative power of The Roots, who build a dialogue tentatively based off of sound. Sufjan Stevens even holds a writer/producer credit on the record.

Teetering on the edge of well composed jazz and classical music configurations, and highly abstract indie rock, Undun is a visceral, provocative and masterfully executed concept album that helped set the stage for more of the decade’s most ambitious and serious projects by the likes of Kendrick Lamar (good kid, T.P.A.B., DAMN.) and Jay-Z (4:44). Leave it to The Roots to lead the way.