Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Roots' "Undun" and Growing Up

As a music-fanatic dad, it is my intention to indoctrinate the Little One into a wide variety of music, but the lack of rap and hip hop is a glaring hole in my current listening habits. I admit that I am a very picky rap listener, mainly because I’m not always sure what will stick with me. My favorites have a mysterious combination of musicality, intellect, and authenticity that I can’t quite explain. Regardless, every so often I stumble across something that mixes these ingredients in just the right way, and a couple of weeks ago, I discovered that the recipe cooked up by The Roots seems to hit the spot.

Their recent release Undun is a concept album that outlines the story of a quasi-fictional character named Redford Stevens, a black youth whose time was cut short in a flurry of missed opportunities and frustrating circumstances. To me, it seems like a rap concept album is a no-brainer: rap depends heavily on the delivery of verbiage and storytelling, so it is a logical step to extend a narrative arc outside of the limits of a two to four minute song. There is a risk that inconsistency could derail such an ambitious project, but The Roots’ experience, intellect, and passion deftly handles the challenge. Sit back and check out the short film attached to Undun.  It features snippits of several tracks from the album.

Undun is a pristine example of mature, artistically ambitious rap. It’s an engaging commentary on the conditions of black youth, and eschews the sensationalistic narcissism that threatens to dilute rap as an art form. What brings the entire album into sharp focus, however, is its infectiously singable choruses. Each track on Undun has a hook that not only drew me into the song, but into the storyline of the album. In just a couple of passes, I found myself carefully studying them, which enriched my appreciation of the lyrics and overall concept.

The Roots have an added advantage with me because, counter to rap tradition, they identify themselves as a band. Rap and hip hop originated in the first-hand treatment of funk, soul, and R & B records. In its early days, a live performing group was unheard of. The Roots began bridging that gap over a decade ago, and now they effortlessly epitomize the musical connection between the great Motown studio bands of yesteryear and the work of today’s best turntablists. Their melodic and harmonic expertise provides access to a wide array of moods.  This is a somewhat low-quality video of my favorite track on the album, but it adequately shows The Roots in action.  Check 'em out on Jimmy Fallon any night of the week if you doubt their skills.

As engaging as Undun is, there are still conventions of rap makes it difficult to justify as an introduction for the Little One.  My sensitivity to these conventions indicates a change in my outlook as the mantle of “dad” starts to crease my brow. The Roots, while hardly foul, are not afraid to drop the occasional f-bomb or employ the socially complex n-word in the telling of Redford Steven’s story. In the past, I wouldn’t have given this relatively gentle rap language a second thought, but now it seems to stick out when the Little One is in tow. Go figure.

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