Most modern hip-hop records celebrate the elevation from rags to riches, but in The Roots' 13th album, the conceptual Undun, the story is told in reverse. Rapper Black Thought embodies the role of the fictitious Redford Stephens, as he narrates the gritty incidents resulting in his downwards spiral.
In I Remember he showcases his consummate lyricism, using sparse yet evocative metaphors to vividly paint the character's desolation: "I drew a two of hearts from a deck of cards/ A stock trick from my empty repertoire/ Another hopeless story, never read at all/ I'm better off looking for the end where the credits are."
Led by the drummer and bandleader Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, the group offsets Thought's heavy rhymes with lush and delicate musical backdrops. The opener Sleep is built upon sparse drums and ambient keyboards with Thought's character speaking from the grave.
The bouncing Kool On acts as a respite from the lyrical darkness with a repetitive soulful groove sounding like it came straight from a jam session, while Stomp livens up the proceedings with a bluesy riff, rattling tambourines and incessant pianos.
Those fearing The Roots' current stint as the house band in Late Night with Jimmy Fallon would result in the loss of their trademark edge have nothing to worry about. Undun is a tightly coiled 38 minutes of tension, showing that after two decades, The Roots can still say as much in one album than most rapper's catalogues.