mensah demary’s previous Liner Notes columns can be found here.
I’ve told this story before in the past, with varying degrees of accuracy. The memories are vague, the details hidden behind a fog that seems to thicken the older I get. Each time I tell the story of how my oldest brother introduced me to The Roots, I’m forced to let go of another detail—I no longer remember what I was wearing, or whether my brother stood or sat, or if we were in the kitchen or living room of my childhood home. I stick with the generalities, the known plot points.
My brother handed me their cassette tape—Do You Want More?!!!??!—convinced that I would love the music. My tastes, much like my twelve-year-old pubescent body, were shifting, becoming something new. I had discovered jazz, a byproduct of playing the trumpet in school band, I suppose. At that time, it felt as if hip-hop had discovered jazz as well, saw its own lineage within the genre largely forgotten and dismissed by the larger music-listening body.
I like to think my brother, who I love dearly but from whom I’m now distant and estranged, knew something about the future. He could see it, maybe—could see us separated by the years between our births, eleven, compounded annually by each additional year we age. We root ourselves deep into our personal lives where time passes so easily, as easily as one says “I need to catch up with him soon,” as easily as one forgets uttering the statement in the first place. I love my brother, as I love my other two siblings, as I love my mother and father. Thing is, the six of us, together, are undone by lack of communication. In that sense, sometimes I wonder—if I’m using my art, my craft, for all the wrong reasons, aimed at all the wrong people.
My brother set me on a path with that cassette tape. The Roots is the only group I’ve followed with any kind of fanaticism. I’ve purchased every studio album they produced, most times within days of release. I bought their tenth album, Undun, in December 2011, without knowing too many facts about the record. This ignorance is a matter of a choice; it is akin to protecting oneself online from movie or television show spoilers. I’m not interested in music critics’ opinions of a Roots album before I hear it, mostly because critics tend to rob the heart of a Roots album with too much cerebral flexing, as if listening to The Roots is an activity reserved for smart men who know they’re smart. The Roots have always produced music from the heart and soul; a hokey statement, I admit, but one I stand behind all the same.
Undun begins with the harsh flatline of an EKG. The death has already occurred, the finality of a life assured. The Roots places us at the end of a life, and walks us backwards. Undun is the story of Redford Stephens. Named after the Sufjan Stevens song “Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou),” which served as a sonic template of sorts for Undun, Redford Stephens is the life embodied by Black Thought, along with emcees Dice Raw, Big K.R.I.T., Phonte, and others. Each emcee strips away their own personal on-mic personas; they even refrain from using or referencing their own names, stage or “government.” Undun is Redford’s story.
Questlove, drummer and public frontman for The Roots, wrote the following for The Huffington Post:
We’ve known many kids over the years just like Redford Stephens, the semi-fictional protagonist whose brief life (1974-1999) informs the narrative underpinning of our new album, Undun. Redford is the prototypical urban kid — young, gifted, black, and unraveling before our eyes. Too volatile to embrace, we wait for the shot clock to count down their demise.
There’s a certainty to this specific brand of premature black-tinged expiry, and yet, it always catches us off guard.
The Roots were, if nothing else, prescient. Dark, brooding, economical in scale—fourteen tracks and thirty-eight minutes long—and painstakingly sequenced for maximum emotional effect, Undun is, in many ways, the precursor to D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
Regrettably labeled as a “concept album,” Undun isn’t a one-to-one mirror image of Black Messiah or To Pimp a Butterfly; the albums themselves do not sound the same. Whereas Black Messiah plants its flag firm into soul, and To Pimp a Butterfly is a mosaic forged primarily by funk and jazz, Undun is singular, almost relentless, in its very sound.
Tom Moon wrote for NPR, “The downcast narrative pretty much defines Undun — it’s laced into the brooding melodies, and it reverberates within the funereal piano chords.” Indeed, the album’s DNA, so to speak, comes from Sufjan Stevens. More than just the inspiration for the name of Undun’s protagonist, “Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou),” from Stevens’ album Michigan, and which appears as part of Undun’s final coda or four-part movement, sounds as if it always belonged on Undun, as if The Roots composed it themselves during the production process. Black Messiah might make you dance with “Sugah Daddy, as will “King Kunta” or “i” on Kendrick’s TPAB, but Undun affords little reprieve from the funereal.
“Kool On” is a celebratory track, with wails and guitar licks reminiscent of blaxploitation films (Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly soundtrack comes to mind), complete with victorious rhymes still tinged with despair. “I’m in a double G three-piece tux, screaming dressed to kill, hoping someone call my bluff” is the self-congratulatory declaration of a successful drug dealer still racked by paranoia; even amid a good time, he feels as if he should look over his shoulder.
Darker still, “Make My” reveals to the listener the circumstances of, and final minutes before, Redford’s death, filled with regret and defeat as Redford, in the voice of Big K.R.I.T., tells us, “My heart so heavy, that the ropes that hold my casket breaks, cuz everything that wasn’t for me, I had to chase.”
Meanwhile, Black Thought, notorious—perhaps wise—for maintaining his privacy, and revealing very little about himself or his past within his rhymes, achieved a lyrical density and complexity throughout Undun that forced multiple listens, that added the necessary layers synonymous with human life. Redford, another black man left dead within an urban environment, is given his humanity, is treated with respect and grace by Black Thought, as he takes us into Redford’s head seconds before death in “Sleep”:
Look, and what I did, came back to me eventually,
The music, played on, and told me I was meant to be awake,
It’s unresolved, like everything I had at stake,
Illegal activity controls my black symphony,
Orchestrated like it happened incidentally, oh,
There I go, from a man to a memory, damn,
I wonder if my fam will remember me.
Each Roots release is, for lack of a better phrase, a family affair for me, or it was, once. Undun, at this moment in time, is The Roots’ magnum opus, their masterpiece, the culmination of all the styles and sounds and techniques they’ve experimented with for the past twenty years. It marks the moment in which Black Thought, rarely mentioned in the “who’s the best emcee” conversations, ascends to a level of lyricism reserved for greats who died too early, or flamed out far too soon. The narrative structure of the album is worth closer examination by those of us who are students, and practitioners, of storytelling. If released today, it would rise up to the heights of Black Messiah and TPAB. And yet, it was released in 2011, four years too early, and it has not even gone Gold, and most likely will not.
Meanwhile, I have not talked to my oldest brother about Undun. That missing conversation is a hole within my personal experiences with a Roots album. After a few playbacks, my brother and I would discuss the new Roots album over the phone, which would lead to larger talks on hip-hop, our lives, our family. These debriefings, if you will, turned into two or three hour long conversations. Why it hasn’t happened is—complicated. Even the simplest answer—perhaps we were too busy with our lives for the conversation—is tangled up by time, by memories, by decisions made and how swiftly they harden, become forever immutable, in our minds.
mensah demary is editor in chief of Specter Magazine and a columnist for Fourculture Magazine. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Metazen, Little Fiction, PANK, Thought Catalog, and elsewhere. Originally from New Jersey, he currently lives and writes in Brooklyn. Find him on Twitter @mensah4000.