Growing up with their nascent LPs like 1996’s Illadelph Halflife and 1999’s timeless Things Fall Apart, it’s a testament to the professionalism of Philly’s hometown heroes that a dozen years later, The Roots are still putting out excellent, envelope-pushing music. Even so, Undun is a total surprise. Somehow they found time away from backing Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show to record a beautiful collection of tracks that attempt (not unsuccessfully) to tell a story—that of fictional character Redford Stephens.
Granted, you’ll care less about Stephens than the rich beats, stunning vocals, and characteristically sharp lyricism from Black Thought. After a nearly irritating short opener you get “Sleep,” one of the record’s strongest and most beautiful tracks. “I’ve lost a lot of sleep to dream,” sings guest vocalist Aaron Earl Livingston as an echoing drip haunts the beat. Album standout “Make My,” with Big K.R.I.T. and Dice Raw, speaks to a spirit of survival that’s one of the heaviest themes in Undun. “See it’s really just a matter of semantics / When everyone’s fresh out of collateral to damage” raps Black Thought, out to take hardship and spin it into triumph.
Then comes “One Time,” a close second for the album’s best work. Swollen, heavy beats start early and hang on underneath the record’s most memorably sung hooks: “I was always late for the bus, just once could I be on time?” Black Thought almost steals the show on this one, too, with a powerful and smartly delivered verse of some of his strongest words to date. “Kool On” has 1970s swagger with a bouncy, metallic guitar sample and relaxed, summery feel. “The Other Side” is elevated with a hefty and soulful vocal from Bilal: “We’re all on a journey / Down the hole of memories / Don’t worry about what you ain’t got / Leave with a little bit of dignity.”
Guest spots like these help make Undun varied and fresh. That’s not to say that the revolving crew that backs ?uestlove and Thought aren’t capable of filling out a record. It’s just that they’ve chosen well, and the singing and emcee voices employed here are planned out just right. Freshest of all, however, might be the stunning suite that finishes the record. From two minutes of a Sufjan Stevens track, ?uesto escalates into a delicate and beautiful trio of instrumental minute-long songs. It’s a fitting end to one of the best hip-hop records of the last year.