Critic Jon Carroll once said Levon Helm was “the only drummer who can make you cry.” I can only forgive Carroll for leaving out so many great drummers because at the time of this remark, Questlove had not been around yet to give Carroll a tutorial in the expressive potential of a simple, repetitive groove. Like Helm, Questlove is at the forefront of everything his band does and is. This allows the Roots to do things that other rap artists cannot. Take their new album undun; it’s actually about someone other than the artist.
Building off of Questlove’s transcendent drumming and hard-hitting production, The Roots have made what has been described as a “song cycle,” a “concept album,” and other labels that mean to give us a hint that their new album is cohesive. I’ll add one more label to the mix; undun is undoubtedly The Roots’ best album. Apart from the band sounding the most soulful it ever has, the lyrics have never been so consistently poetic and inspired throughout, thanks to Black Thought and the excellent guests (especially Dice Raw).
The ultimate reason The Roots created a character for this album was to give the pervasive feeling of helplessness a specific agent, adding emotional significance. The character employed, a representation of black hardship in America, is overcome by the circumstances in which he grows up. Once we have an image in our mind of a particular man who lived from 1974 to 1999, the album becomes a tragedy rather than a dark musing.
Undun should be thought of as Black Thought’s magnum opus. He has always been an astute lyricist but his voice here has never been so guttural and downright bluesy.
In possibly the most thunderous Roots song ever, “Stomp,” Black Thought finds free will devastatingly stifled for and by the character who is about to commit a murder. “Yeah speaking of pieces of a man/ Staring at a future in the creases of my hand.” If that’s not the blues, I don’t know what is.
A rap album documenting adversity and destiny is not exactly a new concept; however, undun is absolutely innovative because it is a different sort of take on this. While it definitely grooves (Questlove), it’s not something to be danced to, but something to sit with. And while most rap draws out emotion and a story explicitly with literal details, Black Thought and company draw out an inner dialogue with intense, abstract poetry and dark imagery.
In this way, it reminds me a bit of a Kanye West album. Of course, it quickly diverges from Kanye territory because it is not ultimately a Fellini-like statement about the artist himself. Kanye is brilliant, but undun is not a journey through an artist’s ego because at the Helm of the Roots is a drummer with a sick groove and a great afro.