Aside from the performers and their alter egos, fictional characters are few in popular music. Eleanor Rigby and the Who’s Tommy are part of a small crowd, in a field in which me and you are by far the most favoured pronouns.
For their album Undun, the Philadelphia hip hop crew The Roots came up with a hero whose 25 years of life ended with the last century. Redford Stevens stalks these pensive tracks like the more comic spirit that animates the back-from-the-dead film Heaven Can Wait. But here, it’s the protagonist who’s waiting, pondering, trying to make sense of the fast blind rush he made through life.
“If there’s a heaven, I can’t find the stairway,” MC Black Thought raps in Make My, mulling in first-person Stevens’s regrets about the means that spoiled the ends and the ends that weren’t worth the means. The easy-rolling chordal groove runs against the song’s retrospective anxiety. The long instrumental extro could support several jazz solos, or maybe it’s meant to serve as a musical ground for our own solo reflection on Stevens and his fate.
In The Other Side, Stevens recalls “running round town spending time like it’s counterfeit,” reliving again and again the deathbed regret, Philip Larkin’s complaint about “time torn off unused.” Bilal Oliver’s bluesy vocal in the chorus delivers the moral lesson for the living: “Don’t worry ’bout what you ain’t got,” because what you’ve got is what there is.
Most rappers think about the past, if only to contrast the hard times of then with the bling and booty of now. Undun is unusual in that it’s written entirely as a song of experience. The present here is just a residue of the past, a footnote written on the back of a death certificate; the future is an uncashed cheque. Stevens’s youth is no doubt a big reason for the sense of waste that dogs this album, and on this point, the Roots are gesturing beyond one man’s fate, to other young lives cut short. Undun is partly a lament for untold numbers of African-American men who don’t make it out of their 20s.
The disc has its defiant moments: in Tip the Scale, we hear about the importance of going your own way, defying the script, and not merely settling for “living well.” The Sinatran phrase “my way” is used repeatedly, and it’s impossible to hear without a suspicion of irony, as the heavy bass line sinks with a fatalistic tread.
The disc opens with death, represented as the sine tone issued from a piece of medical machinery that should be registering the messy rhythms of life. Soft tone clusters form into a five-note melody, and Stevens rises from the table, for a courtly number named Sleep in which he muses, “there I go, from a man to a memory.”
The album closes with a suite of three variations on Redford (for Yia-Yia and Pappou), an instrumental track from Sufjan Steven’s album Michigan. Steven’s sad and noble piano chords prompt a sweet revision with strings and piano in Possibility (second movement), a fierce freak-out jam for D.D. Jackson’s piano in Will to Power (third movement) and an elegaic string closer in Finality (fourth movement). The whole orbit of a life, in one theme and three variations.
Undun is a remarkable achievement, sparse and tough and beautifully realized. The Roots are carving a new road for hip hop – the question is whether anyone else cares to desert the genre’s gaudy carnival and join them.
- The Roots
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