By the time you hear Bilal singing the hook on “The Otherside,” you will very well accept Undun, The Roots’ 13th release, as a damn good record. His voice, as he goes about signing “We’re all on a journey/ down the hall of memories,” is contained but soaring nevertheless. And when he turns tender, he almost commands you to google the lyrics pronto. And when you do, you are treated to some of the most blinding of truths. The poetry, penned mostly by Black Thought, isn’t very compelling, sure, but the truth spoken is more resounding.
This is basically how the conceptual Undun has been received thus far: It’s a damn good record with a point to drive home. Drive home, it does; not as hard but good e-fucking-nough. Think Memento: it is a story of a man told in reverse. Therein lies the grand ambition of a concept. An ambition achieved mainly with its form: in its music (listen to “Lighthouse” and see if you can get off the hook), in its cadence (it starts slow, moves back to the chaos of confrontation, winning in the living of the high life), in its straightforward lyrics that speak of truths.
Unlike Memento, Undun’s storyline is easily understood. Early on, you become certain of the story, you see clearly the mood. Early on, you realize that Undun is a must-listen. It is the harp-like ripple of an opening of “One Time,” after the appropriate intro of “Sleep” and the sober contemplation of “Make My,” that the record’s groove and mood becomes obvious. You have arrived at the heart of the story. See if you can resist the hop of its hook (“I was always late, for the bus…”).
On the basis of the funk of “Kool On,” you know you’re in the part of the story where the man is going about his good life. On “The Otherside” you know you’ve hit the climax of confusion. And what a climax, too. The verse, to begin with, is incredibly intense. But as though the intensity wasn’t enough, the song escalates with its the hook: “We’re all on a journey/down the hall of memories,” sings Bilal. This is an easy, early favorite.
“Stomp” follows, anger and aggression in tow. The familiar, almost expected pag-aangas of hip-hop seem out of place in the somber atmosphere of Undun. Thankfully, it recovers its groove with “Lighthouse,” a lighthearted song that, ironically, is about hopelessness. This is followed by the easily-forgotten, too-elementary-actually “I Remember.”
The eloquence of “Tip the Scale” ends the lyrical experience of the record. Minus the big, pompous vocab, and aided with easy, singable melody, the thought sent across reverberates with pristine clarity: “I won’t make the same mistakes/ from my last run in/ you either done doing crime now or you done in.”
The instrumental trio of “Possibility,” “Will to Power,” and “Finality” serve as something of an epilogue to the sad little story that just ended—or started, you get the drift.
Many critics, perhaps coming from the heights of “How Got Over,” feel Undun is underwhelming, or as per pitchfork, “the music itself feels less immediate.”
But is it about immediacy or urgency? Is anything ever about immediacy or urgency? Because immediate or not, Undun is a good record, dare we say one of the year's best. It’s a refreshing take on the old hip-hop tale, with thoughts told in straightforward poetry, making it more understandable, making it ring better with truth. The hooks won't let you off, and gladly, you wouldn't want to.