undun, The Roots

The Roots' 13th album: undun

The Roots are the subject of a loving, complex tribute from writer Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah in a recent issue of Capital New York. Ghansah, who once charmed her way into working as an intern for the Philly hip-hop band, unpacks a profile of the group that’s part personal essay, part sociological study, part history lesson.

She retells the group’s creation story from drummer ?uestlove emerging as his father’s bandleader at age 13 to Black Thought‘s hard-knock upbringing as a child of Black Mafia hustlers.

Ghansah touches on the crack-era 80s, recalls neo-soul’s identity-forming cultural moment, then goes back in time to minstrelsy, vaudeville to put the Roots in proper historical context. Returning to the present, she explains how the Roots are a special black band that has managed to connect the dots of a unique but familiar black aesthetic.

The article is an ambitious piece of cultural criticism that totally works, despite her obvious subjectivity. (Ghansah claims that undun compares to other albums from Prince, Public Enemy and Sly Stone. Um, not so fast…)

Though I’m not completely convinced that undun, the Roots’ recent and 13th album, is the undeniable tour de force she claims it is, I will admit that the LP’s message and music have an immediacy that even the most casual hip-hop fan can’t ignore. For me, since the Roots’ 2002 album Phrenology, they have veered into making albums engineered to have social-political impact but that sound so not of this era that they almost seem like cultural aberrations.

Granted the musical arrangements on each record, undun included, are amazing. Verses from Thought and various rappers who make cameos are usually of the highest quality and pack a sobering wallop. They consistently produce some of best music of any genre. Period.

But I can’t get over that Thoughts’ lyrics get too often lost in this era of decidedly apolitical music.

Who’s fault is that? Can we fault them for offering a smarter alternative? Probably not. Hip-hop needs the Roots obviously. The universe needs music of substance and import. Ghansah and I would agree on that.

Read an excerpt from her article below. Then watch a 9-minute short film that gives further weight to undun‘s message and a lighthearted convo with ?uesto and Thought about tracing their African roots.

Undun, their first concept album, tells in reverse the life of Redford Stephens. Stephens, a mid-level drug dealer, despite being young and smart, finds that his brain is a weak pawn to the pressurized net of racism. Still, Stephens, wanting more with less, plays a one-sided chess game against life until he is sacrificed to the streets.

Undun is not just a very good album; it is, to me, the Roots’ most thoughtful, important album. It does what we expect great albums to do, what Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back or Prince’s Sign o’ The Times or Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On all do: It tells a story that we rarely hear.Like those albums, undun is tasked not just with being music but also with delivering up a counternarrative. What it produces is an elegy for a group of men whom America has largely forgotten. And I suspect that when we look back on these strange years of our first black presidency, during which nearly half of all young black men who do not have high-school diplomas also do not have jobs, when one in five black homeowners in America is living under the threat of foreclosure, when the execution of Troy Davis, an almost certainly innocent black man, shifted the international gaze to our deeply flawed justice system—well, I suspect that once the “post-racial” rug that poor black Americans have been swept under is lifted, undun will be the record that reminded us to watch not the throne but the streets instead.

Read more here.

WATCH undun‘s short film:


WATCH: ?uestlove and Black Thought talk about their African roots

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