At the beginning of today’s exclusive listening session at Manhattan’s Legacy Studios for The Roots new LP undun, manager Rich Nichols introduced the record by saying “the story is about the undoing of a kid.” Which reiterates what those of us who’ve been paying attention already knew about the concept album, but much more succinctly. He added that title was partially inspired by The Guess Who song of the same name (sometimes known as “She’s Come Undone”) and that the major underlying theme revolves around the idea of a person’s life choices being determined by their surroundings–in this case, ghetto, USA.
Without further preamble, Nichols had the engineer cue up undun for the eager handful of journalists and label types and ran through the LP its entirety—almost. After nine songs, the music stopped and Rich explained that they were in the studio to record the 10th and final track at this very session. At that point Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and pianist D.D. Jackson launched into four or five very different takes of a tumultuous freeform piano-and-drums requiem as we looked on (or drifted out, depending on our jobs) one of which will presumably be the album’s closer. Now THAT is what you call a listening session. Find below my track-by-track impressions of the rest of the album.
“Sleep” – The album opens with a bluesy, spooky piano that could be Portishead or a dusty old jazz 78. Black Thought speaks the first words “To catch a thief…” and then launches into some bars that sketch out the death of the main character Redford Stevens, a disoriented soul looking back over his life, alternated with a soulful, raspy vocal it takes me a second to recognize as Aaron Livingston of Icebird (actually the track is credited to Young Vipers ie Aaron Livingston and Hot Sugar who provided the original music as well). The feel is very cinematic and my first thought is that the narrative structure of this album is there to let The Roots be a lot more experimental with the music, without people losing the thread—same way that Henry Mancini could record himself throwing rubber balls at a harp on a film score, because the viewer is so focused on the action onscreen, they ‘forget’ they’re listening to dissonant sounds.
“Make My” – I don’t have to describe this one because you can listen to it right here, but I will say that the instrumental groove that comes in around 2:44, with its flute and Mizell Brothers-like bass sound is a premonition of the rest of the album, the real heart of which lies not so much in the hooks and verses but in the changes, the bridges and b-sections that carry you over the interstices of the tracks like the movements of a symphony.
“One Time” – Big drums and rappity-rap. “Too much money talkin / we make ‘em economize” and “We make the funny papers like Comic-Con” and “Not a thing I fear except fear itself” (Black Thought). Then “I wonder if you die / do you hear harps and bagpipes / Even if you was born the other side of a crackpipe?” (is that Malik B.?) and then the rappity-rap gives way to sublime, panoramic string movement, reminiscent of the emotionally-charged breakdown in “Act Too (Love of my Life)” from Things Fall Apart.
“Kool On” – This song is built on a soulful loop of heavily modulated electric guitar and a snatch of soulful “whoah” that I swear has to be a sample. Nichols later confirms offhandedly that it is a D.J. Rogers sample, the first and only a rare sample from The Roots–in the past even beats like “Dynamite”–credited to Dilla–were replayed by the band. Meanwhile someone sings “Stars, I make you shine” and somebody raps “sting like a hornet / damn it feels good to see people up on it.”
“The Jump” – Comes in on an abrupt one-beat transition, followed by big, no, HUGE drums and hard-hitting rappity-rap from Thought: “If not for these hood inventions / I’d be just another kid with no intentions” and “when he’s tired of running / Through the layers of the onion, he’ll shed a tear…” The chorus has the feel of a bluesy 70s rock song that you would hear in the soundtrack of a Martin Scorcese flick when the chips are down: “We all on a journey…but on the other side that’s when we settle up the score.” After the third chorus the pitch wavers uncomfortably on the hi-hat and the drums sloooooww doooown into:
“Stomp” – Blues guitar, hard rock bass pulse and a gangsterish piano vamp–and Black Thought “speaking the pieces of a man / staring at the creases in my hand…never deviating from the plan.” Somebody else (Dice Raw?) says “Put the barrel in the mouth and blow the devil a kiss.” Track 6 of a 10-track album and undun just hit a whole other level of Oh Shit. In the spaces of the beat a preacher shouts: “Repeat after me: We gon’ fight!”
“Lighthouse” – “Get down with the captain or go down with the ship / Before we go down I’ma hit ‘em with this…” This is the extremely melodic song which you may have heard Questlove leak tiny a studio snippet from, with words that sounded like face down in the ocean. And are, it turns out, “Face down in the ocean” alternating with the rapped chorus: “Passin out lifejackets, we about to go di-down.” Even in the midst of the dreamy, if melancholy, melody the band is playing with eerie half-tones and other things you really shouldn’t be able to get way with on a rap record.
“I Remember” – Black Thought leads with: “I drew a 2 of hearts from my deck of cards.” The chorus is “I remember / Can you remember / I do…” and the theme (clearly) is memory and looking back at where you came from: “I realize how depressing of a place it is / and recognizing in the reflection who’s face it is.” Powerful stuff, and the only criticism is that it feels too personal to be Redford Stephens, pretty sure this is Black Thought talking about Black Thought and the line between author and character is blurred.
“Tip The Scale” – “Famous last words: ‘you under arrest’” now we are in the prison scene, dealing not so much with the reality of jail as its inevitability: “I got a bro under arrest, and one in / He wrote me a letter, it said: ‘when you comin?’ / Two ways out: digging tunnels or digging graves out.”
“Redford” – Track 10 of 10. I could tell you about this one, but I would have to tell it four different ways and let you choose your own adventure.