Hip hop's history with concept albums is pretty spotty. The genre has its fair-share of classics within the genre, though the format isn't as embraced as it was in its classic rock heyday. There are some obvious reasons for that fact; hip hop has existed in the CD and mp3 eras; when music fans shuffle and program their own music choices and are less likely to sit and listen to an entire album from start to finish than their LP-raised parents were. But that doesn't mean there are no great hip hop concept albums; quite the contrary--fromDe La Soul Is Dead to Jay-Z's somewhat-underrated American Gangster, rappers have shown that they can wring as much narrative and contextual meaning out of a concept record as Pete Townshend or Ray Davies in their respective primes.
The Roots take a stab at the concept album format with their latest album undun. Named after a song by classic rockers the Guess Who, the album tells the story of Redford Stephens in reverse. The album begins with Stephens flatlining in a hospital before taking the listener on a journey of pathos, struggle and heartache as lived through the corner hustler's experiences.
With uber-rhymer Black Thought serving as primary protagonist and narrator of Stephens' story, you get some of the frontman's deftest raps to date and he effectively paints the portrait of Stephens' tragic life. The fact that the narrative never seems strained nor does it rob the listener of the chance to experience the music organically speaks volumes about Black Thought's abilities to tell a meaningful story. He doesn't bog the listener down with too many minute details in an effort to conventionally 'flesh-out' Stephens; instead, he drops mentions to the character's life and culture.
The Roots have recruited precious few guest stars, most of whom are regular collaborators like Dice Raw, Truck North and P.O.R.N. The Big K.R.I.T.-assisted "Make My" is a melancholy jewel of a song, with the Mississippi rapper blending seamlessly into the overall feel of album and adding to the concept instead of detracting from it, over a breezy groove that requires the sweetest of 60s soul.
As the albums moves from the gorgeous strings of "I Remember" to the darkly solemn "Tip the Scale" it builds towards a musical apex unlike anything heard on a hip hop album circa 2011: "The Redford Suite" a striking musical coda that closes the album in brilliant fashion, showcasing the band's musical gifts (particular ?uestlove's drumming abilities) and ending the album in a dramatic flurry of sound and emotion that only the Roots could pull off without seeming pretentious.
Musically channeling the warm, emotive funk and soul of classic Stevie Wonder and Sly Stone, undun also shares a kinship with classic rock staples like The Who's Quadrophenia and modern masterpieces like Green Day's American Idiot and the Flaming Lips'Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. There are few artists in hip hop that are still pushing themselves artistically after almost two decades, and even fewer succeed in producing a masterpiece as musically rich as The Roots undun.