The Roots have been so good for so long (two decades) that it’s perhaps easy to take them for granted. The Philadelphia octet is higher profile than ever as the house band for the “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” TV talk show, but somehow its excellent 2010 album, “How I Got Over,” was overlooked. The same mistake shouldn’t be made with “Undun” (Def Jam), the 10th and best full-length studio album of the group’s career.
Over 14 tracks and 38 filler-free minutes, the album traces the birth, cold-sweat life and early death of a street hustler, consumed by paranoia, crack and unfulfilled dreams. The tightly wound narrative is a familiar tale animated by its sharp turns of phrase, coal-grey images, and, most of all, its evocative music. In a way, “Undun” sounds like a continuation of the brooding first half of “How I Got Over.” On the 2010 album, redemption eventually arrived. Here, there’s no way out except in a casket, and the music underlines the tragedy: the episodic horn riffs of the haunted “Sleep,” keyboards that chime like bells in “Make My” and slam with percussive force on “One Time,” the kick-drum thunder of “Stomp,” the rock-gospel feel of “The OtherSide.” At times, the music evokes a church service or the eerie stillness of a funeral parlor, as if the semi-autobiographical character at the center of the story, Redford Stephens, were already dead.
Questlove Thompson’s beats come hard as a clenched fist, softened by pleading voices and the wrenching narratives of Black Thought, one of hip-hop’s most underrated voices. He’s a philosopher as much as an MC in that he welcomes struggle, the notion that sometimes his protagonists don’t have all the answers and feel trapped, lost, dead tired, desperate. “There I go from a man to a memory,” he muses. “Damn, I wonder if my fam will remember me?”
A gorgeous neo-classical suite closes the album. The band riffs on Sufjan Stevens’ “Michigan” instrumental, tears it apart, and then pieces it back together for a heart-breaking string coda. An emphatic piano chord brings the lid down on Redford’s coffin. If an album can be both chilling and beautiful at once, “Undun” is it.