After a bit of talk about guidelines and word limits, it was mutually agreed that the review should be edited down significantly. I understood this, and was given a specific word limit. I decided to do it, but if you’re a writer, you know how difficult it can be. You can joke around and say “look at this. That’s my baby” but in truth, editing is one of the best things you can learn and do about your own writing. It’s easy to edit the work of others, but a major challenge to see what you did, and realize you have to cut it down by half, if not more.
When I did my original review, I knew that I was taking things past the limit, but in the back of my head I had a sense that it should be shorter. You give me the chance to just write without limits, I’ll push myself to take it as far as I can. I ended up editing, rewriting, and adding to my review throughout, so if people were able to read my original review, they would go “oh, now I see what you were trying to say” or “you were more concise in the short version.” I am very happy with the final version, and you can read it by heading to KevinNottingham.com.
However, I still wanted people to read the full-length version of my review. I decided that I would post this on the weekend before the release of undun so if people haven’t heard it yet (there’s a reason I mention this) or haven’t been persuaded to buy it yet, I wanted this to be the reason they spent their money on December 6th, when undun hit stores and online merchants.
By posting this, it’s also a chance for people to look at both reviews and see how editing can benefit the final version. Or as with those who are musically curious, it’s about hearing the original mix of a song, an uncut version at its original length, or to hear an alternate mix of something that might reveal things that the final version may have hidden. I will admit: posting this is a bit of ego stroking on my part, as I initially wanted this to be the version people read. For the next few days, I will keep this review on my site until Wednesday, when the review will be removed from my site.
There is now an undun app that allows the listener to watch the promotional videos, read the lyrics, and get a sense of how to follow the storyline. The app works like a press kit, and it doesn’t exactly add to the music, but may enhance it. It’s equal to what an enhanced CD used to be, a bit of “extra” but still worthy of viewing.
Why all of this attention towards what is nothing more than “the next Roots album”? I think when it comes to concept albums, it’s territory that hip-hop has only skipped on, and I mention this in the review you’re about to read. This is “new” territory in hip-hop, a genre of music known for its incredible storytellers but very few have ever done so in long form, at a time when the “long playing” album seems to be ignored by a single-centric generation. If you’re an avid fan of rock, or enjoy how jazz is explored, these types of albums are nothing new. In a way, it’s ?uestlove taking his love of all music and seeing how it can be used in hip-hop. That in itself is nothing new either, for there have been countless producers who have used this method in their works. Hip-hop has always been, at its best, a musical sponge, and undun represents the best of that constant intake.
I’m also posting this version because I feel very strongly about this album, and I want to do anything I can to insure people listen to it, and more importantly, buy it. The album was leaked a week before the release of the album, which lead fans to want to hear the leak, regardless of its sub-standard audio quality. The Friday before release day, someone made it aware that a high quality version of the album was leaked. It has been the hip-hop standard as of late: leak drops with semi-ok sound quality, and the weekend before its release, the HQ version comes out. So far, the response for this new album has been incredible, with the usual amount of naysayers but some willing to listen to it again to get a better grip of what The Roots are trying to achieve with it.
Even with a leak out there, it’s not stopping fans from wanting to show up at stores on Tuesday to buy it, or pre-order it online so they can hear it in the “traditional” way, before leaks became a valid way of hearing music.
Here is my original review for undun. Word count: about 4500 words, the equivalent of a short story. Thank you.
The moment I heard “Distortion To Static”, with the sound of record static and crackle popping like crazy before the beat kicks in, I became a fan of The Roots. I was not aware of them when they had released their first album, Organix, but from Do You Want More?!!!??!, I’ve hopped along for the ride of this Philadelphia hip-hop band. I liked them because I love hip-hop, and they were a genuine band who played instruments, adding a human element that was far more than the interaction between the DJ, the rapper, and the crowd. I grew up in a household with a steady dose of everything from rock to hard rock, jazz to soul and funk, with a wealthy amount of Hawaiian music. My music habits were like a sponge, taking in anything and everything from everywhere, with parents who never stopped me from discovering new sounds. There was a time when golden era hip-hop sounded just like that: taking in anything and everything and no matter what you threw into it, it became and remained rap music. Then it wanted to be target market, have a wider audience, and see how far they can go. If the sky had been the limit, why not go beyond those limits? Hip-hop has become a billion dollar industry that goes far beyond its initial core of music, but that has lead to old-timers claiming that the “original essence” is either not what it used to be, or is dead. Nas said it best in his song, which of course lead writers, critics, bloggers, and fans wondering about its death. Yet you also had enough people wondering if it’s not death, what’s wrong about it, if anything? If it needs it, can hip-hop be saved? Does it need to be fixed, or are audiences diverse enough to understand there’s more than enough diversity and choices to go around? It is and has always been diverse, but one tends to see and hear a small percentage of what has been filtered and approved for global success. If this “essence” has been tampered with, if the damage has been done, can it be undone? Or is the act of being undone, the emotions one has to go through in order to become done? If so, what is “done” and who determines the conclusion?
These are some of the things I thought of when I was aware that The Roots’s 13th album was being promoted as a concept album, the band’s first. The concept album is something that is cherished in rock, whether it’s The Who’s Tommy, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick, or Queensryche’s Operation:Mindcrime. These albums become centerpieces for each band’s discography, and are albums that continue to be praised, ridiculed, examined and absorbed because to say there’s a concept means you’re trying to make a statement. As the first song on the album, “Make My”, surfaced from the group’s management and the official track listing was released, I looked at the titles. Even before I had a chance to hear it, the titles told a partial story. The first track is called “dun”, and while the actual piece is an instrumental introduction for the rest of the album, this was significant to me. If the album is undun and there’s a song called “dun”, i wondered if “dun” had a double meaning. “dun” can be another way of spelling “done” as in finished, but in hip-hop music the term “dun” became slang for the word “son”, popularized by Mobb Deep’s Prodigy. The term “dun” was introduced at a time when hip-hop music was making a major shift, one that welcomed in the celebration of the Gambino mentality made famous in a number of films from the 1970’s and 1980’s. Soon, a lot of producers would create music that sounded like distant shades of what Mobb Deep were doing, and soon you’d have rappers coming up with pseudonyms to show their Gambino personas. It was perhaps a different perspective of what was already happening in gangsta rap, but it switched the focus from what may have been going on throughout California to what was going on in New York City, in the present and of the past. It was a way to bring life back into New York’s hip-hop scene that some claimed the West Coast had taken, but one might say it started an attitude in hip-hop’s music, lyrics, and arguably its own perceived persona that has become more than a trend: it is now defined as what is hip-hop today. To me, that showed how poweful Mobb Deep’s music was, but by not digging deeper, people simply accepted them for what was on the surface. In a way, that has been one of hip-hop’s unfortunate stigmas in its mainstream history. Perhaps this is what they feel needed to be “undone”.
Eventually I received an e-mail message, granting me permission to listen to undun a month before its release. I not only had the titles in front of me, but the music itself. Embracing this, I went in. undun is a 14 track album that clocks in at just under 40 minutes, a bit shorter than earlier albums but traditionally, 35-45 minute is considered by some music fans as being “the perfect album length”. “dun” is a very somber introduction that with its string section brings on a feeling of melancholy. No soundbites from anyone in the group, no special introduction from Ursula Rucker or Chuck D., just what sounds like a string quartet playing something that is meant to set the mood, tone, and scene for what’s to come on the rest of the album. I had a brief idea when I looked at the track listing, where the first track is called “dun” and the last song is titled “Finality”. I was eager to find out what was to happen in between.
“dun” begins with the sound of a baby crying, signifying birth. In the background, the sound of a flat line EKG tone, signifying death. Immediately it sets the tone, mixed in with vocal harmonies that could mean a spiritual arrival, revelation, celebration, or one of departure. The vocals could be a flashback of some of the vocal harmonies that were once dominant in a lot of soul music, or reflective of being in a household where gospel music was present. It’s obvious that this is just not music to nod your head to or move your hands back and forth to drop an off-the-head freestyle, this is an audio movie, a motion picture of the mind, and then the film begins. “Sleep” is is a mid-tempo track where the line “I have lost a lot of sleep to dreams” stands out among many quotables. Black Thought then rhymes about the worries he goes through in life, then concludes his sole verse in the song by saying “oh, there I go from a man to a memory/damn, I wonder if my fam will remember me”. It is here that “Make My” comes into play, and when I first heard the song isolated, I listened to it as two distinctive halves. The first half sounds like someone looking back at their childhood, move into adulthood, and experiences as someone grown. It’s retrospective and becomes an entry into hip-hop’s tradition of “I remember songs”, complete with references to hopes and dreams. The melody sounds like a mixture between a school playground tune and a gentle walk away from the past, or is it a wishful memory of the good of the past? Black Thought’s line about how “that soul is in the atmosphere, like airplay/if there’s the heaven, I can’t find the stairway” comes as rock fans celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Led Zeppelin album that featured “Stairway To Heaven”, and while Black Thought’s lyrics throughout this album are as direct as he’s ever been, there’s still a level of wordplay and metaphor that’s incredible, as if he’s saying “why is it that others can celebrate the power of that stairway, and when I’m looking for it, I either can’t find it or it’s not meant/made for someone like me?” There’s a moment of beauty during the song’s second half, as drummer ?uestlove and new bassist Mark Kelley get locked into a solid funky groove, with keyboardists Kamal Grey and James Poyser creating an incredible vibe that sounds a lot like the interludes that Earth, Wind & Fire used to create on their albums, but as if they decided to enhance it and create an entire song from “the cool part” of the song. The band have often talked about their love of EW&F and how much they admired the production and arrangements of Charles Stepney, and one can easily imagine this being recorded in 1969 for Cadet Records during a session for Rotary Connection, just add Minnie Riperton. Those influences in itself is a reflection of not only ones personal past, but the music of the past.
Things get dope and funky as Phonte Coleman drops lines about the conflict between doing what you want to do as a means of being independent vs. doing what you’re told in order to keep head above water and “walk a straight line” in life (“weak heartedness cannot be involved/stick to the script, n***a, fuck your improv”). The song is very timely with a quick reference to the Occupy movement, and anyone who has enjoyed Phonte’s writing style and outlook will like what he brings into the concept here. Black Thought then continues contemplating his own self-merit and value, comign up with the realization that “I guess if I was ever lucky, it was one time/then I went missing, looking for the sublime”. Dice Raw returns into the fold and drops a line that can easily be viewed as a statement for the youth and the hip-hop generation (“A n***a stayed low left the ladder unclimbed/time after time, verse blank, the line unrhymed”). Musically, the melody sounds like it’s an answer to Ahmad Jamal’s “Swahililand”, which could either be a nice reference to De La Soul’s “Stakes Is High” or the song’s producer, the late James “Dilla” Yancey.
While The Roots’ selling point is that they’re a genuine band playing their own music that are able to recreate/interpolate other songs when needed (i.e. “cheaper to replicate than to deal with sample clearances”), it’s always nice to hear them bring in an actual sample. In this case, “Kool On” features an awesome bluesy guitar loop from D.J. Rogers that helps to not only give the group a nice bluesy groove, but also helps to shine light on an artist and album that a lot of people overlooked but is of value to those who love soul with a heavy gospel influence. When the album hits “The Other Side”, it’s a signpost which makes the listener wonder if that means we’re in the second half of the album or is the album about to talk about living “the second half of life”? The start of Black Thought’s second verse reveals one of the missions for undun:
“Yo, we did this in rememberance of
faces from the past we no longer have an image of”
Even as this journey is a serious one, talking about a need to look forward even though we all must look back in order to understand where we came from, Black Thought puts out a gem that brings to mind the old school Roots vibe, as if he just ran to school after having a hearty breakfast, and decided to say “let ’em know I’m getting’ cheese like omelets is/but I’m the toast of the town like Thomas is”. Perhaps he’s also sharing his love of the culinary arts.
It was Rakim who, in the Eric B. & Rakim song “In The Ghetto”, said the line “it all goes back to the essence/it’s a lot to learn so I studied my lessons”. The concept of the essence has been something referred to in hip-hop by both artists and critics, as a way to say that someone understands its origins, or its roots. Black Thought has always been taken as the exception to whatever rule critics want to throw on artists, by stating he is someone who has managed to “keep it real” and “stay true”, which in a way has helped to elevate him as a perceived “great MC”. The accolades are great, but he questions this and answers back by saying “it ain’t about the most blessed love/when you return to the essence, what is it back to the essence of?” The line also doubles as a reference to the theme of the album, for when it is said that one goes “back to the essence”, it means they are dying and they are “becoming one again with the Earth and universe”. Black Thought even states that even though some may feel he is a great one, he is like everyone else, seeing each other eye to eye, no need for mythical pedestals.
“Lighthouse” begins with Dice Raw dropping a rhyme chant: “if you can’t schwizim (swim), then you bound to drizown (drown)/passin’ out lifejackets, ’bout to go didown (down)/get down with the captain or go down with the ship/before the dark abyss, I’mma hit you with this”. One of the biggest surprises is when the vocals kick in, as the chorus sounds like it was done in a way that is very radio friendly. But who’s singing Damn Dice Raw! No joke, it sounds like it was an outtake from the project The Roots did with John Legend, Wake Up, and if this is released as a single, it might do well and help to give the album an extended life. What I love about the song is that is has water and ocean metaphors, sighting the lighthouse as something that guides the boats to shore from dark shores. As someone who was raised on an island, I learned from an early age that even though the beach and rivers can be great places to play in, you always have to respect it as well, for if you turn your back on it or not have a respect for nature, it could easily pull you in as well.
Dick Raw asks what happens when you no longer have that guidance, the boat crashes and you have to go down with the ship? In my mind it immediately brings up Titanic-like scenarios, and again the topic of death remains in view. One might also look back at The Roots’ “Water” from Phrenology and may listen to this as a bit of continuity on their part. The band officially offer their song of rememberance with “I Remember”, and one of the main melodies in the song reminds me of some of the music on Eric Gale’s Ginseng Woman, the illustrated cover of which depicts the feet of a Japanese woman with a pair of headphones leading to her ears. Did the cover mean she was listening to the music, and if so, did the music bring her ecstasy and if so, did that ecstasy lead her to die? Then again, as jazz musician Eddie Harris once said, an orgasm is the closest one can have to “instant death”, which again brings forward the possible theme of the album.
“Tip The Scale” sounds like a mixture of the melody in “Figure 8” (from Schoolhouse Rock) and Quincy Jones’ cover of “Summer In The City” (known as one of the primary samples in the Pharcyde’s “Passing Me By”, but also used by The Roots in “Clones”.) It’s interesting how the group are constantly referring to things of the past on this album, not just of various life experiences but in their own music. These audio cues/clues are what Pink Floyd have done throughout their entire career, when a guitar heard in “Echoes” might become something you hear in a song eight years later (“Is There Anybody Out There”), a scream in “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” can return to haunt the listener 11 years later in “Run Like Hell”, or how a certain bassline will be used many times over in songs in different eras of their career. By The Roots doing this in this part of the album, it sounds to me as if this could be a modern take of Biggie Smalls’ “Suicidal Thoughts”, and I wondered at this point how the gun would present itself. While The Geto Boys have referred to suicide as a horrible but possible option in “My Mind Playing Tricks On Me”, it is something that isn’t a frequent occurence in hip-hop. In some circles, people have said that there are certain cultures that will never sing about nor talk about suicide, for that’s a forbidden topic. One look at today’s topics and suicides seem to be growing only because we are now more aware of it happening, or is it that we’re just hearing it more? African-Americans, Asians, Polynesians, Europeans, it doesn’t matter who you are, suicide is something that can and does hurt families and communities. With that said, is the suicide metaphors meant to be one that refers to personal thoughts, or is it saying a community is killing itself? If it is indeed hip-hop, did fans or critics kill “the essence”, or did hip-hop pull a harakiri on itself? At this point in the album, things become a bit more haunting for as you listen, you’re wondering if the songs are about a character dying, or if it’s the death of a specific characteristic? The album concludes with an instrumental movement that sounds like sadness. It seems to be one final goodbye, the last rites of something, and through four distinct movements (these tracks were originally mixed as one song but will be on the album as four indexed songs) it sounds like we are at a funeral. Biggie had said in “Warning”, there will be “a lot of slow singing and flower bringing”, but there are no sounds of singing or crying, just a collage of sounds that might be a combination of memories, celebrations, and regrets. It’s a short burst of sound that is a bit avant-garde, something you’d expert to hear on a Sun Ra or Raashan Roland Kirk album, but not The Roots. The album eventually ends with the aptly titled “Finality”, and you then realize that what you feel is sorrow, as if everything from you has been drained, and yet happy and satifying. You almost want to throw flowers onto the speakers as acknowledgment for the music and the concept.
Let’s get back down to an essence. While undun is being promoted as a concept album, I feel it’s more of an album with a running theme. To me, a concept album is something like Pink Floyd’s The Wall or The Who’s Tommy, which begins with a specific character who leads the listener to other characters, and we are hearing their story or tale, with a definitive beginning, middle, and the ending, revealing the moral of the story. However, if there is a running theme going through it, it’s that of death. The lyrics refer to something coming to an end in each song, and as each song unfolds into the other, it sounds like an audio suicide note, or like Biggie, their “Suicidal Thoughts”. When I did a live review of this album on Twitter, I posted that undun is sounding like the realization of the inevitable destination and the various emotions one goes towards various contemplations. In other words, it’s understanding that with everything in life, things come to an end, but what exactly is coming to an end remains unknown. Fans will probably ask the obvious question: is this going to be the last Roots album? I say no, I think the group are having the time of their lives with the music they’re writing, recording, and performing, the people they’re collaborating with, and having a weekday gig that allows them to present themselves and their music to a greater audience. I like to refer to different influences in groups, and The Roots are avid fans of Prince. In “Let’s Go Crazy”, he said that we have to get through this thing called life, because in the after world you’re not able to experience a damn things. Life is hard, but we all have to deal. How do we do it? We go crazy, and that means to simply live the way you want on your own merits, to not live by a script, as Phonte referred to in his verse on the album. One might then ask “is this album an analysis of what happens when you call that shrink in Beverly Hills?”, or is this what fame eventually leads to?
All of this leads to more questions than answers, and I like the fact that the group is willing to bring people in, listen to this, and provoke people to wonder what this album is about. Are the members of the group going through personal issues? Maybe. Is this really about the human condition? It can be, but it could also be a metaphor for the band’s success. It could also be about the person Common called H.E.R.. Away from what it might or might not be about, undun is music created by a band that is showed an incredible amount of maturity and growth in the last 16 years. This is not just a bunch of friends in Philly, doing the human beat box and pounding on lunch tables as you recreate the beat to “Nautilus”, this is the sound of a band who were able to look outside of their school cafeteria and say “I want to see the world, I want to know what else is out there and I want to experience as much as possible”. The Roots play a style of music that sounded and felt like freedom, until there was a need to profit from it and market/categorize it. Arguably, that helped to limit rap music’s true power when what was pushed and promoted to the public was a close-minded view. It may have revealed views previously unheard outside of a community, but it was still limited. undun sounds like a young man feeling great to be alive and realizing he has made it this far, so it’s very much reflective of a personal view as well as a possible view of the group. If hip-hop stunted its own growth for the sake of being the eternal 7th grader, undun is the sound of what music sounds like when it ages gracefully, in real time. The Roots are stating a number of obvious things in these songs, but do it in a way where there are other layers to go through in order to find some level of truth, if that truth is meant to be revealed. Some fans may wonder if these songs are really meant to be about anything, but hip-hop doesn’t always have to be 100% literal. There’s a creative aspect that at times gets ignored or overshadowed by what an artist does outside of music, but this is what creativity in hip-hop can and does sound like if you put your mind to it. Does the listener have to understand what is going on at any point in the album to simply enjoy the music, no. There are people who say The Roots abandoned that classic sound years ago, and that they’ve been going through a dark phase, one that is almost double-speak of a not-so-nice assumption that the group caters to different audiences. To my ears, this is the same damn Legendary crew who were incorporating bagpipes and subtle rock influences from the start, all while being true to soul, funk, and jazz. Why does this have to be considered catering, when it’s really a group who are simply playing what they love, and enjoying new discoveries along the way? The instrumentation has always been in your face, with the kind of production that shows these guys have keen ears, eager students that understand music from the inside out, complimented by MC’s who understand that a verse can be anything and everything you want it to be. Black Thought has been the primary voice of the group for years, but they’re not afraid to bring on the voices of others to make a point, whether it be people who have rapped with them in their career or new voices of other rhymes and singers. It’s an album that is as funky as they’ve always been, but one that is an incredible dialogue to take in from start to finish, and you should listen to it from “dun” to “Finality” at least once to understand its true beauty, before isolating personal favorites. In a way, this comes off more like their version of Dark Side Of The Moon, an assumed classic from 1973 that was not really a full-on classic but rather an album with a running theme of life and eventual death. Perhaps hip-hop’s audiences may not accept that anyone would want to be as heady as Pink Floyd, but take it as The Roots doing their own thing. They’ve always stood out as the awkward kids, but those kids are walking tall. Hip-hop doesn’t always have to be about smelling stale farts in the club, for there’s too much life outside to enjoy, with way too little time to do it.
undun represents the human side of… everything. There’s still vibrant life in these gentlemen, and there’s still vibrant life in hip-hop if you know how to not only look, but take a serious listen. One might end up asking what the title truly means? What needs to be “undone”? Is this the sound of something coming undone, the emotions one goes through in order to get from point A to point B? Perhaps it’s another way of saying before all of us are truly “done”, we simply have to “do”. Hip-hop is far from dead, and like Teddy Riley coming into the mix when we were ready to go home and shut down, the party’s not over. In the words of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Paul Rutherford, we have to get off our asses and dance, because we’re all going to the same grave. We’re all heading towards the inevitable experience, but we just have to figure out how to get there in one piece. In that journey towards the end, it doesn’t mean that we have to act like we’re dead. If we can get away from that mentality, we can all live with some zest for life. Dun or undun: that is the question. These 14 songs are a way to contemplate your own answers, now becomes a part of the Roots fabric that represents the continuation of an essence.
(Again, for the version of my review that was published, you can read it at KevinNottingham.com.)