For those who don’t know, I’m a huge music aficionado. I did urban music reviews for my school newspaper way back in college, and I love to give my opinion of the industry, especially my favorite genres (Hip-Hop, Jazz and Gospel). For the most part, I’ve given this up, but the new CD I picked up – “Undun” by the Roots – has given me the urge again. I don’t think I can say too much that hasn’t already been said, though. The CD is effing brilliant, and totally unlike anything you’ve ever heard on a rap album. Period.
I don’t think any CD has haunted me the way Undun has. The concept of the CD paired with the craftsmanship of the lyrics and music, along with the often cryptic and poetic nature of the lyrics has left an impression on me the way no other album has.
I think it is the fact that instead of describing the actual situations their character (Redford, a young street hustler who meets his untimely end) like in other concept albums like Jay-Z’s “American gangster” or Master Ace’s “Disposable Arts” and “A Long Hot Summer,” they choose to delve into the intimate thoughts, feelings, moods and ponderings of the character as he goes through the situation. It’s a totally new and unique approach, one I have not ever seen done before on a rap album. It’s fascinating and it sticks with you.
So, to the uninitiated, or to those who heard the CD and are wondering what the heck is going on, I’m going to offer you my interpretations of the actual narrative of the story from end to beginning. Feel free to add your own if you disagree with mine.
This is the prerequisite intro, but it sets the tone by starting with a flatline and moving backwards to the beating heart and what seems to be a death scream. And is that an organ I hear? Made me instantly think of funerals. But this intro is a clear message that we are starting this story at the end.
The melancholy, minimalist music and the weary, haphazard singing of the chorus (along with the half-sung, half-whispered “I do not miss them yet” in the background of the chorus) give off this tired, journey’s end feeling that is punctuated by Black Thought’s lyrics as Redford comes to grips with the realization that he is, in fact, now dead. “All that I am all that I was is history / The past unraveled adding insult to this injury”
3. MAKE MY
This is a musically rich and reflective instrumental laced by Big KRITT, who speaks as Redford basically delivering his own eulogy “I did it all for the money Lord
It’s what it seems / But in the world of night terrors-it’s Hard to dream” This is followed up by Black Thought’s verse, where Redford finally accepts his fate and fades away into whatever awaits him after death. “Fading back to black… my dark coronation /The heat of the day …the long robe of Muerte / That soul is in the atmosphere like airplay / If there’s a heaven I cant find the stairway” Dice Raw’s chorus is also very deflated and resigned. The instrumental change at the end seems to me like Redford’s dirge, escorting him into the light of the hereafter. Of course, since “Sleep” appeared before “Make My” (and therefore happens after it), you could also take this to be the exact moment where his body dies, and his life flashes before his eyes.
4. ONE TIME
The music for this one is gritty and hard-edged, with both the pianos and the drums crashing. This is a very violent song, with very violent lyrics. Phonte raps as a man on a murderous mission “Feared in all streets / so, if you ever see me out in y’all streets, Find another one to occupy” My theory is that Phonte is rapping as Redford’s would-be assassin, supported by Black Thought’s verse. Thought is equally as aggressive, but his final line gives away the clue that Redford probably won’t get out of this song alive: “Man, I guess if I was ever lucky it was one time / Then I went missing looking for the sublime / A nigga stayed low left the ladder unclimbed / Time after time, verse blank, the line unrhymed” this is followed up by Dice Raw, standing outside of it all, commentating on the nature of mortality in the streets: “I wonder when you die do you hear harps and bagpipes / If you born on the other side of the crack pipe” Add to that the pensive chorus about slowing down and “only getting lucky one time” (which probably means it was the wrong kind of luck), and it seems to me that this song chronicles the moment when Redford was killed.
5. KOOL ON
The music for this one harkens back to the old soul of the 70’s, punctuated by the soulful wail of DJ Rogers. In this song Redford lives it up 70’s blaxpliotation style, enjoying the fruits of his ill-gotten gains, while understanding that his time of reckoning could be right around the corner. All three verses from Thought, Greg Porn and Truck North illustrate the deadly pleasure of high life in the ‘hood, where even in the midst of revelry you walk the razor’s edge. “Living on borrowed time, I’m paying the extra charge / To feel like something small is worth a hundred large”
6. THE OTHER SIDE
This track is methodical and soulful, punctuated by church organs during the chorus. Here Redford tries in vain to justify his lifestyle (Black thought’s verses), yet fails to shake off the remorse and guilt he feels for his actions (Greg Porn’s verse), along with the sinking feeling that all of the dirt he is doing will eventually come back to destroy him. “Thinking that enough is enough but still I want more / Thinking of how I’m playing with fire that burned my young boy / By any means necessary… don’t give a damn / So every night I’m on a flight that never lands / Be an asshole when the shit hits the fan / Or bet your life on a bluff and a bad hand” Bilal’s chorus summarizes both verses.
In the midst of a pumping, hard rock-edged beat, we hear a disembodied voice (possibly Redford’s nerve?) urging him to go out and take what he wants, by any means necessary. In this song, Redford is in full crime mode, even though in the back of his mind the doubts of the consequences of his actions still linger. “Was this a matter of flesh and blood? Yes it was / Does it matter who win and lose? Yes it does / It ain’t about the most blessed love / When you return to the essence, What is it back to the essence of? Greg Porn’s menacing verse accentuates the fact that Redford has gone too far down his chosen path to turn back. ”I’m an evil genius when it comes to this dumb shit / Half of the time ima keep it one hundred / Don’t play chicken when I’m driving them crazy / Get hit in the wing thigh breast or drumstick”
Heavily reverbed drums and piano are what makes the music for this haunting track as Dice Raw uses the metaphor of drowning and being lost at sea, both in his verse and in the chorus, to explain Redford’s thoughts as he wrestles with his conscience over the life he’s chosen and the lives he’s broken. Black Thought brings more depth to the issue, as he speaks of a friend Redford lost – and seemingly killed – in the midst of his fall from grace. “After the love is lost / Friendship dissolves, And even blood is lost / Where did it begin? The way we did each other wrong / Troubled water neither one of us could swim across” And since this refers to a murdered friend, could it be that the chorus could be taken literally to refer to one of Redford’s victims being “face down in the ocean?” and if that’s the case, could Dice’s Raw’s verse be from the perspective of the victim?
9. I REMEMBER
In this song more light is shined on the incidents Black Thought alluded to in “Lighthouse.” Here Redford remembers the nameless friend who would become the first casualty of his decision to travel the path that led to his demise, while at the same time regretting the circumstances that led to the incident happening. “It’s only human to express the way you really feel / But that same humanity is my Achilles’ heel / A leopard can’t change his spots and never will / So I’m forever ill. Now I can never chill…”
10. TIP THE SCALES
And finally Redford’s story ends at the beginning, where he looks at the world around him and decides that one way or another, by hook or by crook, he is going to make his mark in the world. Over a plodding, tragic beat. Black Thought looks at his options and makes the choice that seals his fate. “Look, let he without sin live without sin / Until then, I’ll be doing dirty jobs like swamp men / Counting the faces of those that I might have been / It’s like living that life but I won’t live that life again” Dice Raw provides a bit of foreshadowing, providing a counterargument to Thought, and explaining what outcomes are most likely awaiting Redford at the end of his dark path “Getting money’s a style that never plays out / Till you in a box, And your stash money’s paid out” Here, the chorus has a double meaning: while Redford seeks to tip the scales of fortune, his life literally hangs in the balance. Which way will he choose? Therein lies the beauty and the sadness of placing these songs in reverse order: you knew the answer before the question was even asked.
11-14 THE REDFORD SUITE
And to add emphasis to that last point, we use this instrumental to fast forward back to Redford’s present, providing a musical rendition of his soul at from the moment of his tragic, yet inevitable end, the early parts alluding to what could have been until the final two parts give a harsh, final reminder of what is.
I just found an actual outline of the album’s story at http://www.okayplayer.com/news/okp-exclusive-uestlove-breaks-down-the-roots-undun.html, and it seems I’m not too far off of what the group had originally planned. Kewl.