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The Roots: Undun
Viewers of OSN may now think of the Roots as ‘that band’ on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, but this alternative hip-hop/neo-soul collective have, and continue to hold their own in the industry.
Exposure for the group has increased ten-fold, and it has allowed them to return as far back to their musical ‘cairo360users’ as they’ve been able to in the last two decades. Yes that’s right, the Roots have been jamming since the late eighties, and have worked with some pretty big r&b hitters including Erykah Badu, John Legend and even Roy Ayers.
Undun is a musical biography of the fictional character Redford Stephens, and opening track ‘Dun’ immediately sets the tone. The sound of a flat-lined life support machine tells us that this will be a story of woe: Redford is dead, and the album works backwards through his life. ‘Sleep’ follows, and is an angst-ridden pure hip-hop track that contemplates death in the most cynical and paranoid of ways.
‘Make My’ and ‘One Time’ are as glum; but they are soulful despite reflecting life’s worth, especially when spent hustling on the streets.
On the other hand, ‘Kool On’ is a funky, laidback song that celebrates the riches acquired through that same hustle. Think the 1970s, neat afros and bright suits. ‘The Other Side’ articulates a common hip-hop subject; Redford is a man on a mission to pull himself out of the hand he’s been dealt.
If a piano, a guitar and a tambourine could be angry, it would sound like ‘Stomp’, which sees our hero Redford as a man on the edge. It’s through this song that we see the transformation; a good man deciding to do bad things. A sentiment most likely followed on from the next track ‘Lighthouse’ in which Redford finds himself a lonely man: 'After the love is lost/ Friendship dissolves/ And even blood is lost’. Rapper Dice Raw features throughout the album, but shines most here in his delivery of the chorus, and shows that he can sing as well as he can rap.
‘I Remember’ is a brooding trip down memory lane, and ‘Tip the Scale’ sees Redford take a me-against-the-world attitude, before the album finishes on four instrumental tracks. ‘Redford’ is a very simple but almost cinematic piece of piano, which drives immediately into the violin-infused ‘Possibility’. Then comes the jazz-fusion hysteria of ‘Will to Power’; a cacophonic reflection of the turbulence of Redford’s life. ‘Finality’, for the most part, reflects death, tragedy and peace, but the violins are disturbed abruptly by one final note; like when you press your hands down on a piano, trying to catch as many keys as possible. It’s one last reminder that there’s nothing romantic about death.
Undun is a perfect reminder that no modern-day genre of music can tell a story like hip-hop can. More so than that, few hip-hop acts can do that like the Roots. Although drummer Quest Love and rapper Black Thought remain the only two founding members, the group’s thirteenth album is as Roots-y as anything they’ve ever released.
Album opener ‘San Angeles’ will get feet moving and booties shaking, but the rest of the album is decidedly more post-rock oriented. The influences of Pink Floyd only really make a grand appearance on psychedelic tune ‘Lunar Drift’, with its spooky synths and echoing bass line.
‘The Eliminator’ takes the listener back to the eighties again, as the repetitive electronic beat that is used sounds a lot like the 8-bit sounds that were the backdrop for many early eighties video games. Imagine the aforementioned desert wasteland turning 8-bit coloured.
The eighties also dominate in the strummed intro to ‘Martin Rev’, evoking memories of Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’. You’d almost think the guys of Maserati had wished they were making music a few decades ago.
With no prior announcements of its making, save for a short film named “Jungle” released a few hours before it became publicly available, If You’re Reading This it’s Too Late was first released on iTunes Store, Spotify and Soundcloud, and quickly received acclaim – impressive sales figures followe.
So what’s the deal with this mixtape/album hybrid that boasts a massive 17-track track list? As a whole, it shows lyrical maturity on Drake’s side, as well as quite remarkable production. As is his usual, the Canadian singer’s fourth album blends the worlds of velvety smooth r&b and modern hip-hop.
The latter emerges in spirit on the album’s opener. ‘Legend’, in which Drizzy announces, “If I Die, I’m a Legend.” He continues on “No Tellin’”, warning “Please do not speak to me like I'm that Drake from four years ago/ I’m at a higher level.”
It’s a theme that runs through much of the album, with his often ridiculed but much loved romantic (hyper-) sensitivity offer taking a backseat somewhat. His position as a target of more hate that he probably should get drives him to unapologetically state, “I’ve got enemies//Got a lot of enemies,” over the eerie, monotonic piano chords in ‘Energy’.
Despite drifting into self-actualisation on ‘Know Yourself’, the Young Money prodigy still doesn’t go to the emotional depths fans have become accustomed to, rapping “I've always been me, I guess I know myself” and “I want that Ferrari, then I swerve” in one same breath.
With several guest collaborators appearing on the album, one of the highlights is ‘Star67’ featuring Lil Wayne; a song that sees Drake go full-on confessional, rapping about his struggle to financially support his mother, making it in the fickle industry and going from rags to riches.
He explores these subjects further on “You and the 6” – a track seemingly inspired by and dedicated to his mother: “She worry 'bout me from home//You know she raised me alone.” It’s on this song that he most harks back to what can only be described as his unique selling point – rather than gimmick – of breaking the urban music mould with a relative and digestible sense of sincerity.
Though many will argue that If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late presents little other than the familiar introspectiveness of Drake, it does go some way to prove that his musings aren’t exclusively affective in the context of chart-friendly, commercial radio. With excellent production values and a noticeably increasing lyrical maturity, this is possibly his best work to date; an album-come-mixtape that stands tall in a sea of hip-hop bravado.