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The Roots, ‘undun’ (Def Jam)

Does anyone still consider the Roots to be harbingers of a kinder, gentler, more approachable iteration of hip-hop? Because ever since 2004’s The Tipping Point (their one consensus flop), each new album has been more dogged than the last in its determination to confront the unconverted, and undun is their most uncompromising work yet, 14 tracks clocking in at a blunt 38 minutes with nothing that feasibly could be considered a “single.” It also continues the indie-folk all-stars summit begun on last year’s How I Got Over with a concept album inspired by, no joke, Sufjan Stevens.

No, the similarity to Greetings From Michigan has nothing to do with civic pride or xylophones: instead, the Philly crew clearly fixated on Stevens’ vivid characters, crippled by an absence of real choices and manipulated by economic forces they neither can alter nor understand — sound familiar? And so undun introduces an everyman hustler named Redford Stephens, his story told in reverse, starting with a flatline beep. The attitude of Roots MC Black Thought is unrelentingly grim throughout, and even the occasional nods to gangsta opulence — lobster dinners, Just Blaze beats — are treated as a brief respite from a relentless flood of garden-variety hassles.

The music itself is phenomenal, harkening back to Curtis Mayfield and Donny Hathaway’s storytelling classics with understated funk, analog warmth, and just plain tremendous mixing — “Kool On” works wiggly guitars into something irrepressibly funky,and although the impossibly lush, two-minute instrumental coda of “Make My” takes up a relatively large piece of real estate on such a short record, it really should be longer. Yet even with all the conceptual heft and cerebral satisfaction, undun is a strange experience, the narrative both diluted and made redundant by a glut of guest rappers, from those in the band’s extended crew (Greg P.O.R.N., Dice Raw), who simply reprise their approaches from earlier albums, to turns by Big K.R.I.T. and Phonte, rappers too philosophically similar to Black Thought. Is the lack of contrast or innovation a conscious decision to illustrate the endless, unchanging plight of a lower-level drug dealer?But the biggest problem of all lies right in the center: Black Thought himself. As a technician, his flaws are few, and he’s bullshit-free, values-based, and always ready with a brusque slogan — “There I go from a man to a memory.” He’s ideal for public office, but he never gives Redford a pulse. Thought’s tales of the day-in, day-out grind — bitter rivals, unforgiving cops, the dollar’s unyielding lure — scan as surprisingly rote. Is this, too, supposed to be indicative of the pathetic universality of the hustler lifestyle? Or are we stuck with the same arguments about Black Thought’s charisma or lack thereof even after he’s been handed the juiciest role of his career?

It’s a shame, since undun feels like a legitimately weird and risky experiment, pushing the Roots into territory they may not be equipped for: See the four-part orchestral suite — “Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)” — which serves as the “big finale.” Once again, it’s great in theory, but also completely marooned from the rest of the record, and does little besides remind you that ?uestlove is a very, very good drummer. Sure, the Roots work hard and play hard on undun, but there’s not enough pleasure to balance out Thought’s business-like, consummately bland reading of the character who’s supposed to bring the entire album to life.