Album review: The Roots, undun

The Roots.
The Roots.

HERE, the Roots are known as an alternative hip-hop outfit - and in their 20-year reign they have made some of the finest, and most intelligent music to come out of that genre.

Meanwhile, over in the US, they're also known as the house band for popular talk show Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. And it's that breadth of talent that makes this Philadelphia band - yes, a real live band led by rapper Black Thought and drummer ?uestlove, which is another rare phenomenon in hip-hop - so damn good.

While they have jazzed up and wigged out hip-hop to create a dizzying sonic palette all of their own over the years, with 1999's Things Fall Apart and 2002's classic Phrenology two of the band's pinnacles, on last album, How I Got Over, they moved towards a more stylish and smooth sound. It was an ambitious, guest-laden hip-hop cabaret, but no less forward-thinking and powerful in its intent.

On undun - the band's first concept album (more on that soon) - they continue in the same vein, only it's even more refined and even-tempered. Although Stomp is a sinister exception.

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Make My starts out as a sweet refrain - like the hip-hop equivalent of yacht rock - but as with the rest of the album the singing is interwoven seamlessly with tough, probing raps.

It's some yacht rock-style vocals that provide many of the album's most beautiful moments - Lighthouse wouldn't sound out of place on a Hall & Oates album (apart from the rap bits perhaps) and on One Time guest singer Phonte is channelling Toto. But it works.

Elsewhere, neo-soul singer Bilal Oliver does a serenading star turn on album highlight The Otherside, Kool On is, indeed, one of the coolest things to get down to this summer, and if the beat of Tip the Scale was any more laid-back it would need beating with a big stick. But even that works.

Then there are the delicate glitches and trumpet runs, and stunning fragility of a song like Sleep, which is an example of just how exquisite and accomplished this eleventh Roots album is.

Though the guest list is not as diverse as How I Got Over, experimental folkie Sufjan Stevens' brief but beautiful turn on the first part of the album-ending Redford Suite is an inspired choice. In fact, Stevens' song Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou) from his 2003 album Michigan is the inspiration for the concept album's main character Redford Stephens. The record details his life growing up, struggling to survive and turning to crime to make ends meet.

Not that it necessarily plays out like a concept album, because apart from the bookends of Dun at the beginning and the Redford Suite, the songs stand up by themselves.

Just like the Black Keys' latest, released last week, with undun the Roots make a late run for album of the year.

Stars: 4.5/5
Verdict: Another album of the year contender

Buy undun online at MightyApe here.

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