Late last week, Philadelphia neo-soul band The Roots breathed a sigh of relief. The group feared it would be released from its ongoing two-year gig as house band for “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” after a live TV stunt involving 2012 presidential candidate-hopeful Michele Bachmann and the song “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” by ’80s alt band Fishbone.
The song is a lively tune, and the humorous cover by Reel Big Fish is worth a listen, but sources close to both Jimmy Fallon and the Republican U.S. Representative were less amused. Although no serious actions were taken against The Roots, the band’s drummer, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, has said he paid for his actions shortly after, when 3,500 angry Tea Party supporters responded to the incident on Twitter (he blocked them).
So it is amid an already-saturated media scene that The Roots drops its 13th studio album, undun. The release is exceptional and thought-provoking as much as it is animated and danceable — as only a Roots creation could be. It loosely follows the concept of a fictional character named Redford Stephens.
The Stephens storyline is a major factor in the album, but one that might be impossible to glean merely from the words of the tracks — except, of course, No. 11, titled “Redford.” However, picking up on the album’s themes of black identity — and the strained terms by which the musicians define it — is far more straightforward. Crime and violence are discussed, though if we are to accept the album as a concept compilation and narrative, these views are technically those of the so-called “Redford,” not The Roots’ members.
The album begins and ends with artful instrumental tracks: It is one and “Dun” for the short first track before leading into the vocal tracks and eventually ending with a series of three movements written and produced by Questlove and several others. The vocal section makes up a bulk of the album, and is clearly defined by the entrance of Tariq Trotter and Aaron Livingston. Trotter was an original member of The Roots along with Questlove and utilizes a combination of soulful melodies and spoken word.
The songs lead well into one another, creating a motif of journey-like advancement. “Make My,” featuring Big K.R.I.T., an artist familiar to the Madison hip hop scene, proclaims “If there’s a heaven, I can’t find a stairway,” and repeats “I make my departure from the world,” releasing an image of transcendence and peace distinct from the confined nature of society. “The Other Side” defines this as well, as Trotter says “I always felt like I deserved more / When I make it to the other side that’s when we’ll settle the score,” speaking the words softly in a lyrical sigh.
The song “Redford” is unique in more than name. It is the final track before the three-part violin finale, and the piano and Sufjan Stevens influence make it more Vince Guaraldi than Earth, Wind and Fire in form. It shows The Roots’ measured ability to play consistently beautiful music while pushing the boundaries of genre and creating provocative content.
Although students can most superficially relate to the song “Sleep” this time of the semester, the entire album is a must-listen. The positivity of this release is sure to outweigh the Bachmann practical joke, and for a 13th album, undun brings fresh ideas to the table.