The Roots: A Song Cycle For A Life Cycle | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
Filed Under:

The Roots: A Song Cycle For A Life Cycle

Play associated audio

The hip-hop band The Roots might currently be the hardest-working band in show business. Five nights a week, it's the house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and is constantly collaborating with other artists. And this week, the band issued its 10th studio album. It's called undun, a concept album about a kid named Redford Stephens — named after songwriter and composer Sufjan Stevens and his 2003 instrumental "Redford" from the album Michigan -- coming to terms with living a life of crime.

In "Tip the Scale," a desolate-sounding singer repeats the hook, "decide on suicide, heads or tails." It makes a weird kind of sense that Redford Stephens pins his life on a coin flip: The central character of The Roots' new song-cycle tells anyone who will listen that he's rarely felt in control of his destiny. His options started out limited, and have dwindled down to street hustle or prison.

This is familiar territory for The Roots — somewhere on each of the band's 10 albums, there's a verse about young lives trapped in urban poverty. On undun, the band aims to go deeper — by focusing on one lone, thoughtful kid and his responses to the frustrations of everyday life. In "One Time," Stephens reflects on his unremarkable school career and the moment when he started to wonder, "Why bother?" This is a sober flipside of hip-hop bling — even the party jam "Kool On" carries a haunting undertone.

The downcast narrative pretty much defines undun -- it's laced into the brooding melodies, and it reverberates within the funereal piano chords. There are, however, a few riveting moments when the mood of the music runs counter to the message: In "Lighthouse," the main character contemplates suicide, but the refrain has the exuberance of a Stevie Wonder tune from the 1970s.

It took me a while to fully grasp this Roots record — for one thing, the action doesn't unfold in chronological order. And I started as a skeptic: Do we really need a hip-hop concept album in 2011, a time when the form is overrun with egotistical blowhards? Turns out we do — at least when it's as thoughtful and poignant as this one.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

WAMU 88.5

Hundreds Brave Frigid Temperatures To Celebrate Kite Festival

There was plenty of wind to lift kites of all shapes and sizes at the National Blossom Kite Festival Sunday; at least for those who could brave the cold.

NPR

Cheez Whiz Helped Spread Processed Foods. Will It Be Squeezed Out?

Turns out, the history of Kraft's dull-orange cheese spread says a lot about the processed food industry — and where it might be headed as Kraft and Heinz merge.
NPR

Indiana Governor: Lawmakers To 'Clarify' Anti-Gay Law

Mike Pence, who signed the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act last week, says he didn't anticipate the level of hostility the law has engendered.
NPR

App That Aims To Make Books 'Squeaky Clean' Draws Ire From Edited Writers

Clean Reader — an app designed to find, block and replace profanity in books — has drawn considerable criticism from authors. This week, makers of the app announced they would no longer sell e-books.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.