A legendary live hip hop group and the best house band in late night television history, The Roots have built up quite the reputation over their illustrious over two decade career. After spending their first 22 years building their reputation on dynamic live performances, they signed a deal to be the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, a surprising move for a band that has been mostly countercultural, but one that works quite well for them. They can finally settle in one place to raise families, get a more than adequate income, and play with a bounty of music legends when they stop on through to perform.
Undun is a modest followup to the star-studded How I Got Over, which included lots of John Legend and its fair share of indie all stars from The Dirty Projectors to Joanna Newsom, but that doesn’t mean Undun is any worse for the wear. “Make My” lays strong ground work with icy piano and ?uestlove’s metronomic drumming in which guest rapper Big K.R.I.T.’s smooth Southern rhymes and lead rapper Black Thought’s active flow build upon. “One Time” combines a dizzying synth sample with an assertive piano melody to back the songs killer verses by Phonte and Dice Raw, even if the chorus falls a tad flat. “Kool On” displays why The Roots succeed in the studio as well as the stage; ?uestlove’s knack for pristine production and ability to uncover choice Soul cuts to build their songs upon. “Stomp” is the only aggressive song on an otherwise diplomatic album, as the blazing electric guitar couples nicely with Black Thought’s battle cry rhymes.
Undun like much of The Roots other strong studio work, does have its weaker songs mostly due to some lousy choruses. “Lighthouse” is an odd fit with its moody and annoying refrain over a busied sample. “I Remember” follows and starts fine enough and also employs a beautifully orchestrated bridge, but has one fairly clichéd R&B chorus that just soils the song. “The Otherside” has a sprightly piano melody that sounds straight off Kanye West’s back catalog before hitting a pretty corny gospel chorus.
One notable story from Undun is how the last four songs are inspired by Sufjan Stevens’ haunting instrumental “Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)” off of his landmark album, Greetings from Michigan. Amazing tweeter and drummer ?uestlove teams with avante-garde pianist D.D. Jackson to first run through a cover of “Redford”, and then play three inspired piano movements following (“Possibility”, “Will To Power”, and “Finality”). A four movement classical piece seems like an odd way to close a hip hop album but actually works quite well, especially with Undun being one of The Roots more somber and orchestrated albums.
With Undun’s classical touches laid back feel makes it a real hip hop outlier, but it’s what The Roots do best: make cool, unique hip hop records, that sound even better in person.
Can’t Miss: “Make My” “Kool On”, “Stomp”
Can’t Hit: “Lighthouse”, “I Remember”
Additional note: The Roots rep is as one of the most politically charged bands today, being one of the more outspoken advocates of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and their knock on Michelle Bachmann during her intro on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon is just another in a long-line of political moves, although this one ranks among one the funnier things one can do (The Roots played the beginning of Fishbone’s “Lyin’ A** B**ch” when Bachman was introduced).