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.
Undun is a 14-track album that clocks in just under 40 minutes. No sound bites from the group or guests; just what sounds like a string quartet playing something that is meant to set the mood. With an album that begins with a title like “dun” but closing with “Finality,” I was eager to find out what would happen in between.
“dun” begins with a baby crying, signifying birth while we hear the sound of a flat line EKG tone signifying death. Immediately, it sets the tone mixed with vocal harmonies that could mean a spiritual arrival, revelation, celebration, or departure. The vocals could also be a flashback of some of the harmonies that were once dominant in a lot of soul music or reflective of a household where gospel music was present. “Sleep” 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 and concludes 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. When I first heard the song isolated, I listened to it as two distinctive halves. The first half echoes like someone looking back at their childhood as they move into adulthood. The second sounds like something you’ hear on an Earth, Wind & Fire record, perhaps a Charles Stepney arrangement, even something unrevealed from Rotary Connection. Almost like a first time musical discovery, where sounds are described in color and beats are discussed as mathematical paintings.
Phonte makes an appearance on “One Time,” with a verse that touches on the conflict between being independent vs. doing what you’re told in order to pay bills, “Weak heartedness cannot be involved/stick to the script, nigga, fuck your improv.” Dice Raw’s first appearance happens here with a line that can easily be viewed as a statement for the youth and the Hip Hop generation: “A nigga stayed low left the ladder unclimbed/time after time, verse blank, the line unrhymed.” Musically, portions of the melody sound 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, J Dilla.
The concept of the essence has been something referred to in Hip Hop by artists and critics as a way to say that someone understands its origins or its roots. And 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,” which, in a way, has helped to elevate him as a perceived “great emcee.” 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 that says when one goes “back to the essence, “They are dying and becoming one again with the Earth and universe.”
“Lighthouse” begins with Dice Raw dropping a rhyme chant, “If you can’t schwizim (swim), then you bound to drizown (drown)/passin’ out life jackets, ’bout to go didown (down)/get down with the captain or go down with the ship/before the dark abyss, I’ma hit you with this.” Then he does what becomes one of the biggest moments of the album; he sings the chorus, which touches on what might happen when one doesn’t have guidance, using a lighthouse and the ocean as possible metaphors. “Tip The Scale” could be a mixture of the melody in “Figure 8” (Schoolhouse Rock) and Quincy Jones’ cover of “Summer In The City.” It’s interesting how the group is also referring to their own musical past.
At this point in the album, things become a bit more haunting as you listen. You might wonder if the songs are about a character dying, or if it’s the death of a specific characteristic? The album also has an instrumental movement that sounds like sadness. It seems to be one final goodbye…the last rites and through four distinct movements, it sounds like we are at a funeral. There is a brief passage of sound that is a bit avant-garde…something you’d expect to hear from Sun Ra or Raashan Roland Kirk but not The Roots. The album concludes with the aptly titled “Finality” and you then realize that what you feel was sorrow from everything experienced. It’s as if everything from you has been drained yet you feel happy and satisfied. You almost want to throw flowers onto the speakers as acknowledgment for the music and the concept of one’s passing.
While Undun is being promoted as a concept album, I feel it’s more of an album with a running theme. This album is the concept of a singular character spoken through various emcees. And “His” story is being told in the process of the album with a beginning, middle, and end. Before I knew this, I simply heard it as an album with a constant running theme, and not so much one solid concept, but it does eventually reach the same conclusion as the “concept album” theory does. If you are to take on my “running theme” theory, then that theme is death. The lyrics refer to something coming to an end in each song as each unfolds into the other; like an audio suicide note. When I did a live review on Twitter, I posted that it sounded like the realization of the inevitable destination and the various emotions and contemplations that one goes through. In other words, it’s understanding that with everything in life comes to an end, but what exactly is coming to an end remains unknown. Ideally, it is about someone contemplating life. Metaphorically, it could represent a band seeing themselves as honorable elders of Hip Hop, making it this far but wondering what the future holds. It could also easily be a musical adaptation of the suicide of the entity Common referred to as H.E.R., who has taken one last journey on her path of rhythm. If so, it seems The Roots are playing resurrectors, and attempting to give the dead some life. The album is a musical Matryoshka doll: simple in its approach, but more beautiful once its contents are revealed.
So what needs to be Undun? Are these songs the sound of something coming undone or 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.” We’re all heading towards the inevitable experience, but we just have to figure out how to get there in one piece. It doesn’t mean that we have to act like we’re dead in the journey towards the end. And 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 songs are a way to come up with your own answers and have now become a part of The Roots fabric that represents the continuation of a collective essence.
Tip The Scale[audio:http://kevinnottingham.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/The-Roots-Tip-The-Scale-excerpt.mp3]