The heart monitor flatline in the opening of undun is more than an just an entry; it’s an exit and ending to a life that belonged to Redford Stephens, the poor-decisions-dictated-the-unfortunate-outcome-of-life type of identifiable character that The Roots’ 13th album is centered about. In this detailed introduction, the reverse whirlwind that shifts from the piercing first note into the ghostly organ-driven lines leads up to a man’s final breath of air in a fast-paced adrenaline rush. This backwards progression defines the direction for the path of undun, where Stephens’ life is traced back from the moment of death. Similar to the video for How I Got Over’s “Dear God 2.0,” the idea of transitioning back in time while having the immediate action appear in the foreground is used extensively.
The beginning of the story to undun is much of a reflection on one’s life after a series of destructive events have run their course. In “One Time,” recognition of wrongdoing and an idea of a hard lesson learned shines through for an individual who was forced into being an unfortunate example for others, and who turned out on the unlucky end. Post-death reflection exists in the extensive instrumental outro on “Make My.” The ending progression appears to be the point following the deadly gun shot and inevitable hollowness that found its way back after undun’s lead character has been hunted down.
“Even if I’m going to hell I’m gonna make an entrance,” rhymes Black Thought in the second verse to “The Other Side.” A knowingness of future potential consequence enters into the mind as things begin to unravel quickly, which, in hindsight, is supported even more by Thought’s line earlier on the track, “And it ain’t no truth in a dare without the consequence.” The attitude for fast times backed by a long-deserved mentality, charter the story into an ill-advised place and a false sense of temporary accomplishment.
“Stomp,” the hard edged guitar driven battle piece, is the turning point in undun where the action occurs that leads to the inevitable. Now in touch with the underground crime lord atmosphere, there is no turning back as the window for this solider to seize the moment is shrinking. At this stage, the fate of Stephens is about to be determined from these specific event(s), which seem to be driven from a reaction of a poorly planned impulse. The idea of an unstable mindset is portrayed shortly thereafter in “Lighthouse” where the life-in-the-gutter belief and fearful turbulent thinking begin to overcome the situation.
The psychology of Redford Stephens is possibly most accurately depicted in “I Remember” as the reflection targets a former life that once was had during a pre-unraveling moment. One of the most prevalent motives behind undun for The Roots is also most apparent on this track as Black Thought says “Sometimes it’s as cut and dry as a business deal, you gotta cause the blood of a close friend to spill;” a harsh reality that has negatively impacted friends and family members close to The Roots. The primary means for this activity is shown in “Tip the Scale,” where an idea of stealing some positive gains to get by is instilled, all while this character is nearly pleading with his own mind.
Though darkness has heavily populated its existence on undun, a sense of hope does exist in the closing series of tracks where the beautiful melody taken from Sufjan Stevens’ “Redford (for Yia-Yia and Pappou)” is interpreted over four movements, fit with orchestral arrangements. Undun is more than just a concept record, it’s an aggressive call to action to affect change at the ground level. The primary truth to learn from here is to be aware of your conscience and the character of your shadow.