Philadelphia’s Roots have been broadening hip hop’s sense of possibility since the ’90s, through un-self-conscious eclecticism of conceptual leader ?uestlove and the focused, free-range sincerity of lead MC Black Thought and associates. In light of ?’s prolific Tweeting and his no-doubt demanding day job as Paul Schaeffer to giggling late-night impressionist Jimmy Fallon, The Roots could be forgiven for either chilling on their laurels or sinking into a ’70s-rock-star malaise. Instead, this ever-shifting, relatively ancient collective has turned in its most cohesive LP in at least five years and its darkest, most urgent, most intense work to date.
Before we get to the how, let’s cover a few formalities. undun claims its inspiration not from the Guess Who, but from an 8-year-old piano figure from McSweeney’s-level-precious pop songwriter Sufjan Stevens (Soupjam himself sits in on the 88s). It’s a concept album, revolving around an ill-fated Philly pusher named Redford Stephens (no relation), not unlike Superfly… but run in reverse, see. From Stephens’s death to his birth. If any of that sounds frivolous or precious, trust that undun is anything but.
One need not know of its programmed thematic layout to catch this packed, cold buzz of an album, emotionally fearless, inexorably sober and dangerously obsessed with late-capitalist new-money angst, perceived karma and real-as-fuck mortality. Black Thought and his rotating cast of henchmen spit a relentless series of grim, fatalistic one-liners (“Even if I’m going to hell / I’m gonna make an entrance”) over tracks organically rich, propulsive and somehow fragile, as if rendered to scale to make room for BT’s claustrophobic pessimism. (The vocals are so wall-to-wall insistent that ?’s deft hand, and his immersion in Mayfield’s language for sadness as much as hip hop’s language for unapologetic anger, may not reveal themselves until a deep third or fourth spin. This one’s without a doubt a grower.)
Despite the non-stop lyrical concentration, undun is hardly timeless or flawless — even The Roots have to drag in “guest” singers these days, and while the haunting, understated hooks for “Kool On” and “One Time” crystallize those nuggets beautifully, the damned-near-emo hooks for “The OtherSide” and “Lighthouse” are a bit of a shock, considering how densely packed the verses are — but it’s a triumph of tragedy, blackout irony and unforgiving reflection.