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The Roots: A Song Cycle For A Life Cycle

Dec 6, 2011
Originally published on December 6, 2011 7:36 pm

The hip-hop band The Roots might currently be the hardest-working band in show business. Five nights a week, it's the house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and is constantly collaborating with other artists. And this week, the band issued its 10th studio album. It's called undun, a concept album about a kid named Redford Stephens — named after songwriter and composer Sufjan Stevens and his 2003 instrumental "Redford" from the album Michigan -- coming to terms with living a life of crime.

In "Tip the Scale," a desolate-sounding singer repeats the hook, "decide on suicide, heads or tails." It makes a weird kind of sense that Redford Stephens pins his life on a coin flip: The central character of The Roots' new song-cycle tells anyone who will listen that he's rarely felt in control of his destiny. His options started out limited, and have dwindled down to street hustle or prison.

This is familiar territory for The Roots — somewhere on each of the band's 10 albums, there's a verse about young lives trapped in urban poverty. On undun, the band aims to go deeper — by focusing on one lone, thoughtful kid and his responses to the frustrations of everyday life. In "One Time," Stephens reflects on his unremarkable school career and the moment when he started to wonder, "Why bother?" This is a sober flipside of hip-hop bling — even the party jam "Kool On" carries a haunting undertone.

The downcast narrative pretty much defines undun -- it's laced into the brooding melodies, and it reverberates within the funereal piano chords. There are, however, a few riveting moments when the mood of the music runs counter to the message: In "Lighthouse," the main character contemplates suicide, but the refrain has the exuberance of a Stevie Wonder tune from the 1970s.

It took me a while to fully grasp this Roots record — for one thing, the action doesn't unfold in chronological order. And I started as a skeptic: Do we really need a hip-hop concept album in 2011, a time when the form is overrun with egotistical blowhards? Turns out we do — at least when it's as thoughtful and poignant as this one.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The hip-hop band The Roots might just be the hardest working band in show business. Five nights a week, they're the house band on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." They're also constantly collaborating with other artists. And today, the group put out a new record. It's called "Undun," and it's a concept album about a kid coming to terms with living a life of crime. Critic Tom Moon has our review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIP THE SCALE")

THE ROOTS: (Singing) Homicide or suicide, heads or tails, some think life is a living hell. Some live life just living well. I live life trying to tip the scale my way.

TOM MOON, BYLINE: It makes a weird kind of sense that Redford Stephens pins his life on a coin flip. The central character of The Roots' new song cycle tells anyone who will listen that he's rarely felt in control of his own destiny. His options started out limited and have dwindled down to street hustle or prison.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIP THE SCALE")

ROOTS: (Rapping) Yo, I'm always early. I never take off because I got a job. Rob Peter to pay Paul. Now, I realize it's the winner that takes all. Do what I got to do because I can't take loss. Picture me living life as if I'm some animal that consumes its own dreams like I'm a cannibal. I won't accept failure unless it's mechanical.

MOON: This is familiar territory for The Roots. Somewhere on each of the band's 10 studio albums, there's a verse about young lives trapped in urban poverty. "Undun" aims to go deeper. It focuses on one lone thoughtful kid and his responses to the frustrations of everyday life. This song, called "One Time," finds the character reflecting on his unremarkable school career, and the moment when he started to wonder, why bother?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE TIME")

ROOTS: (Singing) I was always late for the bus. Just once, can I be on time? Then I start to think, what's the rush, who wants to be on time? Feeling unlucky and if I ever got lucky, it's one time in this crazy world.

MOON: The downcast narrative defines all of "Undun." That mood is laced into the questioning melodies and reverberates within the haunting piano chords. There are, however, a few riveting moments when the music runs counter to the message. On "Lighthouse," the main character contemplates suicide, while the refrain radiates the exuberance of a Stevie Wonder track from the 1970s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIGHTHOUSE")

ROOTS: (Rapping) My hand starts bleeding, water starts receding. A feeling comes into my heart, I start believing that I actually might survive through the evening, survive my own thoughts of suicide that's competing with thoughts of trying to stay alive, which been weakened by the feeling of putting on a smile while being beaten. The fear of drowning, still diving in the deep end. The waters carried me so far, you can't reach them, and it feels like there's no one. (Singing) And no one's in the lighthouse. You're face down in the ocean, and no one's in the lighthouse. And it seems like you just screamed, there's no one there to hear the sound, and it may feel like there's no one there that cares if you drown. Face down in the ocean. (Rapping) After the love is lost...

MOON: It took me a while to grasp this Roots record. For one thing, the action doesn't unfold in chronological order. And I started out as a skeptic, anyway. Do we really need a hip-hop concept album in 2011, a time when the form is overrun with egotistic blowhards? Turns out we do when it's as thoughtful and poignant as this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE OTHER SIDE")

ROOTS: (Rapping) Yo, we obviously need to tone it down a bit, running round town spending time like it's counterfeit.

SIEGEL: Our reviewer is Tom Moon. The new album from The Roots is called "Undun." You can listen to the entire record at nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE OTHER SIDE")

ROOTS: (Singing) Humble head down, low and broke like promises. Soaking and broken in a joke like comics is not enough paper to be paying folks...

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

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