Skip to main content

Hip hop band The Roots rehearse at NBC Studios, Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009 in New York.

Charles Sykes / AP

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.


Story continues below advertisement

  • The Roots
  • Universal

More new releases


  • Bruiser
  • The Duke Spirit
  • Shangri-La Music
  • Three stars

It's almost awesome, an inch away from something big. With its third bold album (available digitally only until Jan. 17), England's the Duke Spirit continues the conundrum – a very capable band (led toughly and alluringly by the singer Liela Moss) that is a touch too glossy for indie audiences, not dangerous to the Kills crowd and not progressive enough for those who prefer Smashing Pumpkins. There's a lot to like here though: dynamism, muscle and swagger bleeds and pummels on Don't Wait, Sweet Bitter Sweet and Procession. The power ballad Villain isn't quite Bond-worthy – perhaps an Angelina Jolie thriller instead. Which isn't so bad at all. Brad Wheeler


  • Some Girls (Reissue)
  • Rolling Stones
  • Universal
  • Four stars

"I know that we can never live those times again," Keith Richards croons on the pedal-steel ballad We Had It All, as if he were born among Georgia pines, "so I let my dreams take me back to where we've been." The Waylon Jennings cover is one of 12 bonus tracks on the reissue of the Rolling Stones' Some Girls, the band's sinewy return to form in 1978. Not counting Keith Richards's 1988 solo album Talk is Cheap, the Stones haven't released anything near as good since, which makes you wonder why some of the previously unreleased tracks – most of them newly reupholstered with fresh vocals and other overdubs – stayed in the vaults so long. Perhaps the snarling rockabilly cover Tallahassee Lassie sounded a bit too close in parts to John Fogerty's Travellin' Band. (Fogerty adds handclaps on the track – coincidence?) The piano-boogie Claudine, about the case of Claudine Longet, apparently was held back for legal reasons at the time. And why isn't the early reggae version of Start Me Up involved here? Well, that's easy – one wouldn't want to poach on the inevitable Tattoo You reissue still to come. Brad Wheeler


Story continues below advertisement

  • Maki Ishii Live: Saidoki, Concertante and South-Fire-Summer
  • Ryan Scott, percussion
  • Esprit Orchestra, conducted by Alex Pauk
  • Four stars

A one-sentence bio of Japanese composer Maki Ishii would tell us that his music fuses Western and Japanese traditions, sounds, and compositional techniques and leave it at that, but this hardly prepares us for the unique and qualified nature of that fusion. These three percussion concertos tend not to dramatize the most obvious oppositions—between soloist and orchestra, say, or between Western idioms and Eastern ones, although they certainly are acknowledged: An aura of tension surrounds even the most delicate passages, and occasionally that tension explodes, much like a chemical reaction. Subtler still is the contrast between rhythmic measure and freedom, and they way this music seems to choreograph space rather than move forward in time. Solo percussionist Ryan Scott's musicality is as impressive as his technique. Elissa Poole


  • My Life II … The Journey Continues (Act 1)
  • Mary J. Blige
  • Universal
  • Three and a half stars

Bad love has been good to Blige, if only because few in R&B can convey broken-hearted despair as convincingly or cathartically. With My Life II, Blige steps beyond the template of 1994's done-me-wrong classic, My Life, and looks at both the good and bad in her relationships. There's still anguish, but also self-awareness, which makes Mr. Wrong as enlightening as it is insinuating. More significant are songs like Next Level and 25/8, which marry Blige's powerhouse voice to melodic uplift with spectacular results. Add in a driving, addictive remake of Chaka Khan's Ain't Nobody, and My Life II becomes a journey every fan of soul singing will want to take. J.D. Considine

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles as we switch to a new provider. We are behind schedule, but we are still working hard to bring you a new commenting system as soon as possible. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to