Films such as “Memento” and “Irreversible” are told backwards in order to have revelatory, ultimately wrenching payoffs. Similarly, the latest album from the Philly hip-hop group The Roots, “Undun,” uses a reverse chronology, bookended by two key moments in the life and death of fictional character Redford Stephens.
The story unfolds with “Sleep,” revealing a reflective Stephens after his death, with the lines, “I’ve lost a lot of sleep to dreams … I wouldn’t wish them on the worst of enemies.” The confessional “Make My” has a tone of profound regret as he fades from life, beginning the album in an utterly bleak way.
This continues the dark, somber undercurrent that has haunted the last few Roots albums, including “How I Got Over” and “Rising Down,” but this is the rare band that seems to be utterly incapable of making a bad album. The performances are engaging, soulful, never overwrought—on some level, “Undun” seems too obvious (a hip-hop album about crime? Shocking!), and I can’t help but feel like its morality is a flavor of the “after-school special” variety. Despite this, the album is genuinely gripping in a subtle way—neither overblown nor cartoon-like—and is quite possibly the group’s most affecting album yet.
Not merely one character’s story, “Undun” is more about pivotal moments and the crushing responsibility of existential freedom. Throughout, the nagging question asked is where things started to go wrong. Perhaps referencing its own fateful chronology, “I Remember” features the line, “I’m better off looking for the end where the credits are.” But the end is the beginning, and the crucial song is “Tip the Scale (My Way),” where Stephens chooses his path.
The album ends with a quartet of brief instrumentals, starting with the Sufjan Stevens piano song “Redford,” originally about the Michigan town but reappropriated to have a dual role, both serving as Stephens’s elegy and the calm before—or after, depending on your viewpoint—the storm.