The Roots currently occupy a strange yet comfy bifurcated existence as the hardest-working, most-sought-after band in hip-hop, and the resident music-makers on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Thankfully, the safety and security of a regular gig at 30 Rock (with benefits, no less!) has emboldened rather than stifled the group’s raging ambition. The Philadelphia vets’ 13th studio album, Undun, is the group’s first concept album, and the culmination of everything it has worked toward musically and lyrically. It’s a subtly assured magnum opus that broadcasts its aspirations from the mountaintops.
Conceptually, Undun resembles Christopher Nolan’s Memento. It begins at the end, with the death of its hustling protagonist, and unfolds backward to reveal how he reached such an end. The ghostly instrumental “Dun”—with its distant echoes of anguished screams and heavenly strings— and the hypnotic “Sleep” kick the album off on an appropriately elegiac note. As befits a project about a dead man’s shattered dreams, it’s a haunted, shadowy album of regrets and retrospection. The backward structure and opening death lend a tragic air to even upbeat tracks like “Kool On,” which swaggers joyously like a lost vintage track from Sly And The Family Stone.
Undun ultimately registers as a melancholy, exquisitely downbeat cautionary tale about the dangers of street life. Previous Roots masterpieces like Things Fall Apart and Phrenology were defined by aggressive, borderline-heroic over-reaching. With the tight, concise, ferociously focused Undun, however, the immensity of the project’s ambition is matched by its seamless, masterful execution.