BY MATTHEW HENGEVELD Growing up with icons like the Beatles, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, James Brown, etc etc., you might assume that success in the music biz would lead to some extraordinary fame. You’d think that universal critical acclaim, two decades of hard road work, a repertoire of thousands of songs, a diehard fan base and over 10 loved albums would lead to some excellent payoff, right? Like, having your face on some billboards; a roving mob of half-clothed women; or a helicopter… at least a helicopter. But, superstardom is far from reality for everyone’s favorite afro-havin’ drummer, Questlove. To those in-the-know, Questlove is one of the best ever. To the rest, he plays drums on the Jimmy Fallon show — oh and he pissed off Michele Bachmann that one time. Kind of frustrating, right? Well kiddies, I don’t know why the Roots never blew up. But it’s probably too late for super-stardom now.
Undun, the newest release from the crew, takes a decidedly different approach from past Roots albums. Long gone is the trademark stamp of realness in the Roots’ tunes. In its place: a fictional story of Redford Stephens, the street-life-living son of a drug addict mother, whose path went horribly astray as he became torn apart by his own explosive and irrational behavior. The Roots have used the narrative approach once before, on the track “Unwritten” on Rising Down, but never to this extent. Technically, the album works as a whole, and delivers on every promise made by the band; including orchestral instrumentation, non-linear story telling and dark mood that intensifies as the album progresses. Undun is arguably their most cohesive album since 2006’s Game Theory, and really compliments the relative melancholy of that 2006 classic. I really enjoy Black Thought’s performance throughout, especially on “Tip the Scale,” a powerful denouement for the album. And Philly-native Greg Porn (formerly P.O.R.N.) has stellar verses in all three of his appearances. The production is on-point, if not a bit forced on tracks like “I Remember” and “Make My.” The final four tracks, clocking in at a short 5.3 minutes, attempts to hybridize the sounds of modern alternative and ‘70s jazz fusion. Imagine mashing On The Corner with Kid A, and you’ll get the gist. Yet, I am disappointed to say that, in the end, the album lacks the pizazz I’ve come to expect from the Roots.
You don’t see very many rappers last beyond their 30s, mostly because good lyrics contain material that can only stem from the mundane thoughts that draw from an ordinary life. Once you’re an established rapper, there’s not much ordinary about you anymore. Black Thought has arguably said everything that he needs to say in his career, and more songs like “Lazy Afternoon” and “Stay Cool” are not on the horizon. His technical skills as a rapper are unmatched, but there’s only so far an artist can stretch before he breaks apart. Competition is integral for success in hip-hop. With the Roots hitting further and further into left field, there’s very little for Black Thought to work with that could possibly connect him with the rest of hip-hop’s army of emcees. I suspect that Questlove will have a similar revelation very soon, though his smug demeanor will never let it show. The Roots desperately need to restructure; reconfigure everything that makes them unique, and chime-in a new era defining who and what they are. Undun is a good album, but if Questlove wants his shot at super-stardom (and that helicopter) he will inevitably have to shoot outside of the ballpark for the next album.