Our recurring column ‘Lest We Forget’ is devoted to revisiting albums that have been unfairly overlooked or marginalized within the broader critical and commercial context of our favorite artists’ discographies. We hope that our recollections shine a newfound light on these underappreciated gems from the past, and as always, we encourage you, our readers, to weigh in with your own perspectives and memories in the comments below.
“We all love hearing about ourselves, so long as the people in the stories are us, but not us. “Not us in the end, especially. The Midnight Caller gets him, never me. I’ll live forever.” - Nelson Thigpen (played by Jonjo O'Neill), The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Released in 2011, The Roots’ tenth album Undun is about a life of crime cut short. It’s about pain, loss, reckoning and acceptance. It’s about the limited choices of happenstance. It's about the mentality of someone who was never given anything, wants everything, and whose entire life is based around these two facts. And it's about 38 minutes long.
Undun begins at the end, with a young man coming to terms with his death. The album details fictional protagonist Redford Stevens’ wayward path of crime, as well as the social circumstances of a generation forced to fend for itself.
As the album unwinds, we see the way Stevens lived. Black Thought, who weaves a lyrical tapestry on every track, is as sharp as he’s ever been. With pitch-perfect guest verses from Big K.R.I.T. and Phonte, as well as band mainstays like Greg Porn, Dice Raw, and Truck North, Undun manages to sound like The Roots’ most polished and balanced album to date.
Undun starts peacefully enough, with Stevens’ fully accepting the consequences of his actions. On “Sleep,” Black Thought comfortably glides over creeping horns and haunting keys for a perfect elegy.
The track ends quickly, fading into “Make My,” where the pacing of the album begins to pick up. Here, Stevens is preparing for his last few breaths. For such reflection, there may be no better contemporary rapper than Big K.R.I.T. “My heart's so heavy that the ropes that hold my casket breaks / Cause everything that wasn't for me I had to chase,” K.R.I.T. explains, concluding his short but stellar verse that opens the track. Listeners must reckon, as Stevens does, not only with the cause and effect of his actions, but the proverbial hand he has been dealt.
From here, the album shifts from the serenity that death brings to the chaos that brought it. “One Time” opens with a feature from North Carolina bred rapper Phonte. He and Black Thought contemplate opportunities and luck, and what a lack of either will do to a person. The standout on this track is Dice Raw, who asks, “I wonder when you die do you hear harps and bagpipes / If you born on the other side of the crack pipe?” His verse, while less polished, is the most biting and visceral on the album up to this point.
“Kool On,” “The Other Side,” and “Stomp” are a trio of riotous and defiant anthems, with self-assured bravado in the face of all odds. “Can’t Win? Can’t Lose” says Greg Porn, frequent Roots collaborator whose turn of phrase is emblematic of the mindstate of Redford Stevens at this juncture in the album. The dramatic organ notes on “The OtherSide” bounce off of the electric guitar on “Stomp,” creating a soundscape that sounds triumphant and dynamic. Questlove and friends’ production should be commended as much as the sequencing on Undun. The album is excellently paced and lasts just as long as necessary.
The final third of the album (not counting the instrumental coda) finds The Roots, and Stevens, at a contemplative crossroads. “Lighthouse” compares our protagonist’s plight to being lost at sea, only able to see an empty lighthouse in the distance. Again, it's Dice Raw’s surprising ability to match Black Thought’s knack for imagery and wordplay. The keys on the track sparkle like the small, reflective grains of sand on a beach. Quest’s brambling drums are reminiscent of the consistent crashing of waves. Things may sound bleak, but it’s beautifully orchestrated all the same.
“I Remember,” the album’s most somber sounding cut, is notable for being Black Thought’s only 3-verse song on the album. It’s a masterpiece of self-examination, exploring themes of memory, guilt (or lack thereof), and what we gain when we disregard our humanity. Confessional in tone, “I Remember” is The Roots at their best—a band hitting all the right notes with an emcee at the height of his abilities.
The lyrical portion of the album wraps with “Tip the Scale,” a slow-rolling stroll through the sobering circumstances of Stevens’ life. Here, homicide and suicide are seen as two sides of the same coin. Here, there are “soldiers of the streets with 8th grade diplomas.” There’s a pragmatic, almost nihilistic bend on Black Thought and Dice Raw’s verses that round out Undun in bleak albeit fitting fashion.
The album closes with an instrumental coda, including Sufjan Stevens’ original piece called “Redford” (inspired by the Michigan City). The Roots throw in some orchestral jazz-jamming that ebbs and flows calmly and violently before ending on an even note. It’s a perfect distillation of the sonic themes and mood of Undun as a whole.
The album is a testament to the creative and musical abilities of a band showing no signs of slowing down after nearly 30 years in the game. While not their most widely celebrated album, it should be remembered as a masterpiece of our current decade.