REVIEW: The Roots’ “…and then you shoot your cousin”

 photo TheRootsATYSYC_cover_zpsd8cd9d7c.jpg Is this part of the Def Jam Payment Plan, or is this what money could provide if people paid attention to listen? …and then you shoot your cousin (Def Jam) is the latest album from The Roots and if people have been wondering why the group have been acting all pissy since Phrenology, then you’re not going to like the darkness heard in the lyrics throughout this thirty-three minute album. You now might be thinking “33 minutes? We’re in a digital world, what is this 33 minute crap?” In a time when album sales are diminishing, 33 minutes can be considered a healthy listen in 2014 and that is what should be done to this, a concept album that is direct and indirect as some of their projects in recent years.

…and then you shoot your cousin is a concept album where the characters interact with each other throughout the album, along with assisting in describing the atmosphere that lead to the surroundings and the circumstances behind talking about this. When you hear Dice Raw saying “what’s for breakfast? Same as yesterday/oh, that’s right, cheeseburger and a 40 ounce/yo, what’s for dinner? nothing n***a/last night, I had a dream about a Porterhouse”, he could be having a flashback to youth but he could also be touching on hip-hop at a younger age, perhaps what KRS-One referred to when he said “now there’s steak with the beans and rice”, wondering when the good meat is going to arrive, when the good cuts are going to be put on the dinner table and everything you have to do in order to make that happen, if it can happen. The spiritual side of ones self is explored in “Understand”, doing things in order to survive but always doubting if things are good or not, and if being bad will become a part of a domino collapse. “The Dark (Trinity)” touches on personal identity while judging ones self with guns and diamond teeth, while living one way is said to be the only way you can be when you want to be much more, even though the powers that be tell you that you can’t be. It’s fulfilling a need for something else, but for whom and why. The line “I remember all I wanted was a gold chain and a Kangol” goes back to the essence of not only rap music, but youth, when ambitions were innocent and not about surviving a game that other people said you were in, and not being in it means you are, in the words of KRS-One, outta here. Raheem DeVaughn handles two vocal appearances on this, the album’s penultimate closing track being his own song while the one before, “The Unraveling”, has Black Thought saying the lyrics as if it’s a confessional, uncertain of what he has created, what he has become, and whether or not what he has learned will pay off for him.

You can listen to …and then you shoot your cousin in a number of ways. As a new Roots album, it sounds like the band are enjoying being enraptured by exploring emotions that are often not part of hip-hop’s diaspora. One can argue what hip-hop’s diaspora may be anymore, can someone still be able to touch on what made the music proud in the first place or is it nothing but what rules everything around you, have we made it further than the dream Biggie Smalls once talked about in “Juicy”? The album has a number of references to hip-hop of the past but also of itself, for “The Dark (Trinity” sounds like “Silent Treatment” played at a slower tempo while “Black Rock” sounds like that choice album cut on a CD or mix tape that made you want to rewind its grit over and over just to feel it and share it with everyone, what made the music felt like a community even if it only meant people at school, at camp, at college, or your Usenet newsgroup. There are moments where the album doesn’t sound like a full group album at all, which shows how well Black Thought had always represented himself throughout their entire discography. Black Thought plays a very important part of the album’s storyline, but he may be part of the chain that links everything together as everyone else helps to define it in a simpler manner. Some tracks just sound like ?uestlove on turntables and Black Thought with a mic, other parts you can hear some intense freaky moments that may sound like an excerpt from Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels, and if you’re not into the perceived out-of-place movements, you might thing the group have gone off their heads again.

The Roots keep on testing their fans who claim that hip-hop is everything, and yet when a group is more than willing to incorporate anything and everything, it’s not hip-hop enough. Those fans were making themselves known once the album started to stream last week. It seems what they do cannot be understood by some because what they’re doing is unfamiliar, and yet in other genres, what they’re doing would make critics pull up words making it the best project of the year, if not a career. What defines The Roots as such and why push those limits when no one is willing to play and challenge those limits? It is what …and then you shoot your cousin covers, a way to question who did the shooting, if a death happened and if not, what can be saved to bring the identity back to life. If The Roots are saying bringing something to life means bringing it back to reality, who will be willing to leave it in our hands until we’re ready, and will we know when it is ready or let things rot? As grim as the album sounds, there’s some humor and sarcasm throughout even though it may not be easy to detect just yet. It could be a way for them to laugh at itself but by the album’s conclusion also stating that what we do is not, and has never been, a laughing matter.

Consider this the piano melody in Chic’s “Good Times”, hearing the sadness but knowing that one day, the horror will end. What the horror is and why it holds us down is what makes this an important lesson. The cut-and-paste vibe of the cover artwork may be a way to say that hip-hop in itself comes from various sources, or “pieces in one big chess game”, and while we may all be separated, it is the unity that keeps us alive. That is what must be done before things truly do fall apart. How you define and apply it is up to you, and that’s what makes this a joy to listen to.


REVIEW: The Roots’ “undun” (original version)

I was given an opportunity to listen to the forthcoming album by The Roots called undun, a month before everyone else. I wrote for a number of mainstream publications (read “magazines”) and received only one reply back. I’d rather get a reply of “no, but thank you for thinking of us” than to be ignored. There are many websites out there I could’ve submitted a review to, and hey, you’re on my website, I could’ve posted it here too. I went with because I like their work, and they don’t treat the music and artists as a carnival road show, or as if it’s more about the show and less about the music. Once I got the thumbs up, I did my review.

With a month away from the release of undun, I had asked if I could “freeform” it, as in I wanted the freedom to do the review the way I wanted to do it. I can write in a concise manner, but I can also be “very in-depth”, which for some is code for “long winded”. I wanted to do an essay-type review because I felt the music deserved it. However, I was also writing for someone else with “my” idea of how I wanted to do my review. Arrogant, sure. Confident, definitely. It wasn’t meant as a way to be cocky, it was just “I can write this way, I’m ready to write.”

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

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.

Here are a few things to consider about this original version of the review:

  • I wrote this, only knowing that it would be promoted as a “concept” album. In that time, ?uestlove had posted some “notes” on his website pertaining to how the album was written and how it should be listened to. When I did my re-edit, I added a few elements from ?uest’s notes on the concept, even though I felt (and still feel) that the album also works as an album with a running theme. In other words, you can either follow the concept as presented, or listen to it as themes, and yet both paths will lead to the same conclusion.
  • 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

  • REVIEW: The Roots’ “undun”

    Photobucket A lot of naysayers say today’s Hip Hop is a mess and its original “essence” has disappeared. But does it need to be fixed or are audiences diverse enough to understand there’s more than enough diversity to go around? And if this “essence” has been tampered with, and 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?

    When I became aware of The Roots’ forthcoming album, there was a need to figure out what kind of stories they were going to share. The title was a partial clue…perhaps the track listing was another. Then, as if by magic, I was given an opportunity to listen to undun a month before its release. I was also aware that this was the band’s first concept album so I went in.

    To read the full review, go to and click here.

    (NOTE: The original version of my review for undun was 4500 words, or basically the average length of a short story. It was mutually agreed that it should be slimmed down a bit, and with a bit of editing and rearranging, plus one or two additions, you now have the final review. The original was more in-depth with some of the influences and constant music cross-references I was hearing, but I’ll keep that one in the archives for now.)

    REVIEW: The Roots’ “How I Got Over”

    Image and video hosting by TinyPic With The Roots, there always seems to be something extra (with)in their music. When compact discs were a bit more prized, one could find a hidden track or burst of sound. Or one could look at the covers and wonder what the group had in mind, figuratively (Things Fall Apart) and literally (Phrenology). Let’s take a quick look at the album cover for How I Got Over (Island Def Jam). Does it consist of people running? If it is, are they running away in the same fashion as N.W.A did in 100 Miles And Runnin’? Or are they running towards that big, bold white light, maybe paying an ode to Caron Wheeler‘s “Living In The Light”? Are these suggestions of how they, the legendary Philly hip-hop crew, “got over”?

    Upon listening to this, the band’s 11th album, you realize that this is an all new experience, an “album experience” that in hip-hop has been somewhat lost. It’s all about the single MP3, the hit, the ringtone, the ringle, the song that will get them airplay outside of what used to be the normal means of hip-hop promotion. Yet The Roots, from day one, have not been normal, and the battle for normalcy and individualism in music has been their driving force, and while their growing legion of fans go out of their way to show support because it’s not just “the norm”.

    The album begins with female background vocals singing a simple melody. Is it doo-wop, and is that a reference to ?uestlove‘s father, Lee Andrews? It then leads to some sounds that could’ve came from ?uest’s collection as a kid, very soulful and funky. Is this a way to describe his upbringing, the music he listened to as a kid curious of how sounds work? It leads to ?uest knocking out a beat, could this be the sound of discovering hip-hop? If so, one could easily compare this to the intro of Biggie SmallsReady To Die, where the intro talks of his origins before he explores his life and metaphorical suicide. A lot of people praise Ready To Die 16 years after the fact, and I feel that hip-hop fans and music scholars will look into and cherish this in the same way in 2026.

    People will immediately notice the amount of collaborators who are on this, but having people such as Yin Yames, Joanna Newsome, and John Legend does not change the overall sound of the band in anyway. They’ve dabbled in pop and rock styles in recent years, so hearing Patty Crash bless a track like “The Day” with her sensual vocals fits the mood of the song, which is about that one day of optimism and freedom, as Fishbone once sang about in “One Day”. Black Thought raps about the differences in him since he and the group released Do You Want More?!!!??! 15 years ago:

    Before I rise and shine like a neon sign
    I need the girl of my dreams to give me Einstein
    And burnin’ marijuan like Buju Banton
    It’s my only bonafied break from these confines
    I need a change of scenery like a mai tai
    This chase bringing me the noise like the Bomb Squad
    And everybody coming at me from the blind side
    I’m tired, it’s hard to open up my eyes wide
    I listen to some deep music on the iPod
    And walk around the crib, doing little odd jobs
    Checkin’ my breath, take a view fro this high rise
    Feeling like I’m checking out a game from the sidelines
    I got to try different things in these trying times
    2010 is different than it was in 9-5
    It’s Come Alive time, I pick the fine time
    For getting open off life like a fine wine

    Black Thought’s wit makes him to this day one of the more underrated MC’s in hip-hop, and what makes his rhymes work on here is the simply fact that it’s Black Thought. He has always been a visual rapper, you see what he’s talking about but you can also get a bit deeper and see how certain words within a sentence will rhyme with another word at the end, or how he’ll mix up doing 16 lines and sometimes doing it in a 3/1 3/1 3/1 4 fashion. This isn’t backdrop music, songs like “Right On” (which may or may not give a sample tribute nod to fellow Philly legend Steady B), “Walk On”, and “Radio Daze” require people to listen, for this is music meant to be heard and absorbed.

    The album has been designed to listen to from start to finish, and like Game Theory and Rising Down, there isn’t a direct concept but rather a running theme. The theme on the album basically tells the story, directly and metaphorically, how they got over, even if close family and friends along the way continued to tell them to give up and stop. The music on this album is the result of musicians, rappers, and singers who had many opportunities to pack it in, but their love of hip-hop and creating music is what drives them to write, play, record, and perform. There was a time when lyric fiends would talk about “rewinding the tape” to catch the various lines and pop culture references, so if you hear things like “Kings that pull strings like Dorothy Ashby“, “last spotted on a yacht getting dumb high/banging’ yacht rock with the squad from 2-1-5”, and “shit, I’m Black Thought, what could be more prolific/for this love, I go above and beyond the limit/I told y’all I’m above and beyond a gimmick/I get into your head and spread like a pandemic”, it was meant to enter your mind and be stapled inside from this point on.

    The group has also continued to perfect their appreciation for pop, rock, and soul, but anyone knows they have never been solely hip-hop. You hear the kind of arrangements that are generally deserved for people expected to make “this kind of music”, but who says The Roots band can’t play rock? A number of these songs have the potential to becoming pop and classic rock status, and wouldn’t that be funny? It had taken roughly five years of recording and releasing music (and a death) for Nirvana to become classic rock, and yet three decades after their origins as the Square Roots, to paraphrase Inspectah Deck, it’s about “23 long hard years” and they’re “still struggling”. The album is about that struggle, you hear a level of pain, sacrifice, and a bit of honor as they’ve remained strong to their mission, even if sometimes that mission has been blurred. There’s cockiness and confidence in what Black Thought, along with Dice Raw, Peedi Peedi, and Phonte Coleman, say on this album, united in musical brotherhood and hoping to “get over”. One of the more touching verses (and yes, hip-hop can be touching) comes from Phonte, as he looks at how he was raised, how sometimes his spiritual side ran out on him, and there’s even a level of self-doubt that isn’t a regular occurrence in hip-hop lyrics. If you’ve kept track of Phonte’s music since Little Brother and currently with Foreign Exchange, he has not been afraid to speak out or sing what is on his mind, even if some corporations felt it was “too smart” for others to listen to. There’s a bit of vulnerability in his tone and lyrics, but it’s about fighting the good fight, even though the next time that fight will happen is uncertain.

    The first single, “Dear God 2.0”, has already given them a good amount of airplay with the help of My Morning Jacket‘s Jim James, who contractually is listed as Yim Yames on this album. It places itself early into the album, and some might argue that it’s a downer, but that’s the whole point. The melancholy in these songs give off a very somber mood, especially as they question everything that has happened to their lives so far, with Black Thought talking about how he has to deal with being on the “Def Jam payment plan”. It’s a confessional, getting out their deepest thoughts and putting it out into the world for all to hear. We’re all in this together, as Robert DeNiro said in Brazil, but the song seeks to find togetherness when everything continues to fall apart.

    How I Got Over is what Sun Ra was adamant about in his earthly experience, the idea that one should create and try to live with “no limits”. The Roots are perhaps in another world, on the other level of the game, and yet each time they’ve reached certain levels in their career, they’ve been alone. These songs are an accumulation of what rap music was, is, and will always be, for those who honor the spirit of community. Their tale of how “they” got over is a message of optimism for the world, going back briefly to a time when optimism and good times in hip-hop didn’t have a price tag attached to it. If one is moved to say this is their Ready To Die, we can subtitle this Ready To Live, and this time the baby lives and gets a chance to sing. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself on an emotional roller-coaster throughout this album. Success indeed comes at a price, be it personal sacrifice or compromise, but they wouldn’t be where they are today if they didn’t see things through, it’s been one hell of a ride. In a genre that has been about going on and on forever and ever, The Roots look at their own mortality on this album to acknowledge the inevitability of finality.

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