Over the course of two decades and 14 albums (more or less), The Roots have simultaneously become the most hip-hop group in hip-hop, and the least hip-hop group in hip-hop. While the legendary Philly crew began as the embodiment of hip-hop in its purest form – no image, no swag, just an intense focus on making better music than everyone else - they’ve slowly but surely expanded far beyond their original “dope rhymes x dope instrumentation” foundation. That means that some hardcore purists will listen to the group’s new album undun and long for the …
DJBooth Album Review
It’s hard to reconcile the supremely high energy Roots that fans watch live every year with the increasingly slow, thoughtful and minimalist Roots we’ve heard on their last few albums, and undun is the most slow and minimalist one yet, but perhaps their lives shows are exactly the reason. The Roots hit a mind boggling 200 stages a year, so maybe their albums are where they go to breathe. Their live shows tear down buildings, their albums construct narratives that follow the life and death of characters like Redford Stephens, and by extension the black urban struggle.
Whatever the reason for their increasingly experimental ways, lead single Make My can be counted among undun’s most uptempo records, and that’s not saying much. Opening with keys that sound more like distant dying stars than synths, Make My floats along anchored to the Earth only by Questlove’s percussion, allowing K.R.I.T, Dice Raw and Black Thought to unveil the hidden dark side of rap’s ubiquitous hustle: “Tryin' to control the fits of panic / Unwritten and unraveled, it's the dead man's pedantic.” 50 Cent may have declared that he was ready to get rich or die trying, but all we ever saw was 50 getting rich. Instead, undun focuses entirely on the far more common, and tragic, dying part of that equation. For example, Lighthouse, which drowns in layered, gauzy sound while the hook somberly declares, “No one’s in the lighthouse / You’re face down in the ocean.” There’s no inspiration here, just moments like Tip the Scale that pairs a string-laden composition with rhymes that vacillate between heaven and hell while Stomp, the only legitimately aggressive track on the album, marches with pounding energy but is nihilistic in its reminder that no one makes it out of this life alive: “Cause you was fake and never measured up…But how far am I ahead of ya? / It just as easily coulda been me instead of ya.” undun is a hip-hop black hole that not even the smallest shard of stunting or swag can escape from.
undun clocks in at well under an hour, Questlove said he wants it to be “ADD proof”, a running time that also magnifies the importance of the third of the album that’s purely instrumental. It’s on these vocal-free tracks that The Roots truly show what they’re capable of. Adding rhymes to the ambient into Dun would have only weighed the piece down. The same goes for the aforementioned four track instrumental section that closes the album, starting with Redford (For Yia-Yia and Pappou) and ending with Finality (4th Movement), that somehow manages to incorporate ‘70s funk, experimental jazz, classical violin and more impossible to label styles than I can identify. It’s not simply that The Roots are a hip-hop group that dabbles in other genres, sometimes they’re just a straight up jazz group, or a punk rock group, or whatever else they feel like becoming. And that ability to change themselves seemingly at will is the most hip-hop thing about them.
I won’t front. When I feel like listening to some Roots I’m most likely going to turn to You Got Me or The Seed 2.0 or Distortion to Static, but that’s equal parts nostalgia and the Roots. In the 13 years since I bought my first Roots album, Things Fall Apart, with money I earned from an after school job, they haven’t moved away from hip-hop, they haven’t stepped outside of hip-hop, they’ve pushed hip-hop forward. You can either come along and enjoy the ride, or get left behind.
Listen to More: The Roots Written by Nathan S.
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