The Roots' Undun is a character study and album-length epitaph of the fictional Redford Stephens, whose short inner-city life of crime and consequence yields a meditation on fate, mortality and karmic justice.
The band's first concept album arrives with vivid narrative details, moody instrumentals and a documentary-style detachment. Stephens' tragic arc (1974-1999) is presented through the character's own thoughts, a self-aware mix of bravado and doubt. When the score inevitably gets settled, it's the man's own fingerprints that are all over his undoing.
"It's the flight of my fall and it's right on the wall," raps Black Thought on "I Remember," a song that captures the moment in Stephens' story when rise turns to fall. Elsewhere, the lyrics are shot through with imagery of war and allusions that range from the Bible to Greek mythology, from Hammurabi to F.D.R. to the Sudanese genocide.
It's an edgy and somber album, and at first pass, the strengths are the songs that really pop ("Kool On," "The OtherSide"). But close listening reveals more subtle moments when Undun's cohesiveness and continuity shine.
Undun closes with a four-song instrumental suite that goes from somber strings and piano to nightmarish clang and clatter, a sort of chaotic anxiety that draws the listener to a place that even Black Thought's bleakest lyrics can't quite reach.
To call The Roots incomparable at this point is surely redundant, but more than anything the band has recorded before, Undun is an album that couldn't possibly come from anyone else.