The Boy Who Cried Roots

The Roots' Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson and Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter. Photo by Chago Akii-bua.

At some point, “The new Roots album is really good” became a cliché we’ve been taking for granted since the release of their fourth album, things fall apart, in 1999. They’ve since dropped six more gems, some better than others, but all so consistent and at times stunning in their quality that we’ve just become immune, desensitized, and unappreciative. Oh, yea… The Roots have a new album. I heard it’s really good.

Every other year I find myself telling this friend or that about how great the new Roots album is, stressing its brilliance and begging to be taken seriously… feeling like the boy who cried wolf, except I’ve never lied.

Their legendary live shows, their solid canon of classic studio albums, their recent high-profile gig as house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon… the bar has been set pretty high. And yet with each new release, as they continue to sail over that bar and raise it higher and higher, we shrug our shoulders and nod our heads and put The Roots on our year-end best-of lists and that’s that.

Since 1999’s things fall apart spawned the hit “You Got Me,” the Roots have quietly blessed us with a run of albums that could rival others entire careers, starting with the wildly eclectic Phrenology (what I call their White Album in how experimental and psychedelic it is) and continuing through The Tipping Point, Game Theory and Rising Down. These four albums over six years seemed to come and go, pure genius being ignored right out in the open.

Then in 2010 came How I Got Over, a late-career classic. A “mature” hip-hop album that was still a banger, it was universally hailed as a masterpiece (and yet still probably shrugged off as “another great Roots album”). With their killer collab album with John Legend, Wake Up!, released on its heels that same year, I assumed How I Got Over might be their last album for a quite a while…  And then at the end of 2011, bam!, they hit us with undun. And once again, they’ve outdone even themselves.

As the press releases and subsequent reviews have said, undun is “an existential re-telling of the short life of one Redford Stephens (1974-1999),” a loose-narrative concept album told in reverse about the death of the fictional struggling everyman from the hood. It starts with the flat-line beep sound of his death and then goes back to tell the story of ghetto inevitability.

After countless listens on repeat, I don’t see (or hear) it as “told in reverse,” as much as it seems circular. You can come in at any point and pick it up. It’s like a classic movie on cable, like Goodfellas, where no matter what part is on when you find it, you feel compelled to watch the rest even though you know how it ends. And when the instrumental suite that closes the CD ends…. it starts again with the flat-line beep, and before you know it you’re circling around for another turn with this all-too-familiar American tale of desperation and destiny… like the endless cycle of lives trapped along the poverty line.

To catch a thief, who stole the soul I prayed to keep
Insomniac, bad dreams got me losing sleep
I’m dead tired, my mind playing tricks, deceit
A face in the glass, unable to admit defeat
All that I am, all that I was is history
The past unraveled, adding insult to this injury
I’m fighting the battle for the soul of the century
Destiny is everything that I pretend to be
Look, and what I did came back to me eventually
The music played on, and told me I was meant to be awake
It’s unresolved like everything I had at stake
Illegal activity controls my black symphony
Orchestrated like it happened incidentally
Oh, there I go, from a man to a memory
Damn, I wonder if my fam will remember me

That’s the very first verse we hear from Black Thought. If I decided to quote any more of his brilliant one liners and verse-long portraits, it would fill this whole post. Just go read them, or better yet, submerge yourself in this record and hear a lyrical master at work, in both writing and delivery. His basic style/flow may have been birthed by the legendary Rakim a generation ago, but Black Thought absolutely belongs in any type of “Top 5 MC’s of All Time,” list/argument you want to make. He might not have the cultural impact of Tupac or Biggie; He’s been around for close to 20 years on record, but he’s not quite a pioneering legend like Chuck D or KRS-One; he’s not as flashy as Nas, Eminem, or Andre 3000. And while he’s undoubtedly benefited from the beats, production and leadership of ?uestlove, it’s also possible that Black Thought’s “legacy” is diminished cuz we just hail them as The Best Hip-Hop Group (by a mile) and we never quite give BT his due. Taken for granted once again.

On this latest album, Black Thought is so concise, as plain spoken yet creative with his wordplay and metaphors as ever. Anchored by a revolving door of guest MC’s led by veteran Roots role player on the mic Dice Raw, Black Thought gets the most out of every line, no words are wasted, every rhythmic turn and lyrical phrasing complementing the beat as if it was actually part of ?uestlove’s drum kit.

One of the most interesting recent quotes I read from Black Thought was about his serious approach to the writing:  “Everything you hear me saying on this record is at least the fourth or fifth draft. I would write a verse and then rewrite it and rewrite it. I don’t sit down and write a song, and then slam down the phone like, ‘We got another one!’ and pop some champagne. It’s like if someone’s writing a novel: You write a series of drafts.”

Like a great American novel, I hope that after all the accolades and Grammy nominations and glowing blog reviews, we all remember this incredible album, this snapshot of a society crumbling… with too many people “face down in the ocean, and no one’s in the lighthouse,” and too many others too busy watching the throne.

Compared to it’s predecessor, undun is sonically stark, but still extremely effective. Musical storytelling that paints pictures behind the stunning verses. If they’d never sent out the blurbs about this being a “concept album,” we still would have picked up on the cinematic vibe. It’s like the kind of movie that makes you fall in love with movie making again. And while this particular one has sadly played out in American streets over and over again, undun will still be worth revisiting and repeating for years to come.

Undun is not just “another great Roots album,” (though it is that). It reminds you that albums are an art form and luckily artists like the Roots are still making them.

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109 Comments

  1. So back in the nineties some friends and I bought tickets to some big name artist and the roots opened up for them. We didn’t know who they were at the time and we intentionally went late so that we could have dinner at a certain time (there were two other “opening” bands). Within a week after the concert every one of us was kicking ourselves for not going an hour or so earlier to the concert. To this day I still can’t believe I didn’t see them back then. Oh the the little things we do that turn out so much bigger later on. Funny how life is.

    Reply

    1. So true, isn’t that how it goes sometime? But, the good thing is, especially about The Roots, is that no matter when you start/or started listening you’re getting in at the ‘right’ time. Their music just seems to fit the past, present and future of what our lives entail. Their music isn’t just urban music, its a every-man sort of thing. I think we can all identify with so many of the topics and subject matter within each album, song, or spoken word poetry piece they present. Good, naw…Great stuff for sure. Peace.

      http://mittenmouthmusic.wordpress.com

      Reply

  2. I’m from Philly, and The Roots have never gotten the recognition they deserved. It’s weird. They get more love in every other city but their own.

    And I don’t even pay attention to those Best M.C’s list. Especially the ones on MTV. They’re a joke.

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  3. I usually read blogs about parenting or love or families… all that good mushy stuff, so today when I clicked on your blog it was the first time I ventured into a music blog. I realized you’re right, it has become cliche to say the new Roots album is soooooo good! I hadn’t ever really thought of it before. As a lover of all music, I wonder why I never checked out any of the music blogs, especially since I am the mother of a budding artist who will surely be subject of such a blog oneday! Loved your review, your writing style is nothing less than excellent!

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  4. Oh word, thank you, thank you, thank you! This is a sweet post, and as someone who has been trying to get people into the Roots since Phrenology (still my favorite, the LP version is mad), I concur with all that you said here. Oh man, and the live shows?! Tight, eclectic and some of the best I have ever seen. Just had to get my Roots love out there, and props for your post!

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  5. Fantastic review. I’ve just been getting into the Roots and this definitely made me want to check undun out. More so, it made me want to think about the album as I listened to it. Great job.

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  6. Great write-up. The Roots are definitely one of the more important acts in Hip-Hop. They silently release great albums and never fail to impress with their material. Can’t wait to see what they continue to release in the future!

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  7. I loved the way the way this story was captured in a true artist forum. I loved Black Thought since he was Jeru The Damager. The Roots are the true refreshing meaning of musicians and artists. I’m so glad that we have them in comparison to what some call musicians and music now

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  8. @bumslogic Great article, I’ve never got into the The Roots properly but when I hear something I like by them I love it. I’d agree that with your point that there a band who are taken for granted even when I don’t like what I hear I can’t deny the quality.

    Will have to check out ‘Undun’ again with the lyrics in mind as I never pick on lyrics on the 1st listen.

    Keep up the good work.

    Liam

    Reply

  9. Great review. I love your writing style, and this album (and The Roots) is certainly worthy of every word of praise you gave it and more!

    “with too many people “face down in the ocean, and no one’s in the lighthouse,” and too many others too busy watching the throne.”

    It’s sad how true that statement is.

    Thanks for a great read!

    Reply

  10. Ugh, I LOVE that verse from Black Thought. That’s some serious skill. I think sometimes people don’t realize that writing lyrics like this is an art — just like you said albums are an art form. There’s so much shit on the radio these days. I listen to some rap songs that have no meaning to them and feel nostalgic for when the Greats like Biggie and Tupac were around.

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  11. One more philosopher,clutching tight the shackles of the past,,squinting in angry determination so as not to see, the missing locks to those supposed contemporary chains,, Why open your eyes to see before you ,within you,,, the power to rienvent yourself, especially when it will suggest to others you are happy in your rejection of it.

    Misery takes no effort, growing beyond it is accomplishment,

    Reply

  12. Oh yes, undun is an exquisite album.

    And, after listening to it over and over, I came to the same conclusion — that it’s circular, rather than a pure linear narrative. I think for the first few tracks you can follow the reverse linear perspective, and then I lost it, which wasn’t a bad thing to me.

    Great article.

    Reply

  13. definitely agree with you on Black Thought. He’s def one of the most underrated emcees in the game and he’s definitely on my top 5 list.

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  14. I think the idea of a consistent “rap band” is so far out in left field that hip-hop fans really don’t know where to place The Roots. As a unit they really have no competition and that may be the reason why giving their work a good review is so cliche. The Roots are absolutely amazing. Music lovers and students will be studying them for centuries to come. Perhaps it will take a bit more time. Listeners may have to spread out their musical repertoire on the coffee table one day and admire the entire collection before they truly realize that gem that is the ‘good Roots album’ amongst the crowd. The Roots… Black Thought… ?uestlove are musical geniuses. Maybe for the time being we can only compare them to them.
    Great piece, by the way! =)

    Reply

  15. Reblogged this on The Bronsk Common and commented:
    I’ve been listening to the Roots for years and just take for granted how damn good they are and that each successful album will be brilliant. This is exactly what this post from Bums Logic says, only better, reviewing their latest albums. Enjoy.

    Reply

  16. I have loved The Roots for many years now and have countless times repeated the words “The new Roots album is amazing.” But undun is amazing, Black Thought is amazing, ?uestlove is amazing. Thanks for the post.

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  17. So glad you wrote this. Personally I can’t stand the hype surrounding the whole Tupac/Biggie thing, I just don’t get it. But I so GET the Roots. Seen them twice live now and Hoo Boy!
    Black Thoughts lyrics and delivery are so underrated, I am so with you the thinking that people just expect the Roots to be magnificent and conscious. Of course they are, they’re the Roots.

    They are marvellous musicians and performers and artists, at the top of their game .

    I’ve always said that popularity is tied up with the average: average taste for average people = success ( as proportionately popular is the average taste).
    The Roots are decidedly NOT average.

    So maybe it’s a good thing then.

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  18. ‘How I go Over’ has been my personal fav of The Roots for a while. But yeah, this new album is a screamer. Not sure about the whole ‘concept album thing though. For me most songs stand on their own.

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  19. Great review and argument on how the greatness of a group can become every day, or worse yet, forgotten by some of its fans. I listened to undun a few weeks ago online and agree with your point about this album. Sometimes someone needs to shake us out of our musical apathy and remind us how great a band is, especially with a shining reminder like this new album. Thank you. You guys are doing some great work here.

    Reply

  20. I found you quite randomly and I I’m glad I did. I haven’t listened to the roots since their 4th or 5th album, no good reason, just life I suppose. I’ve always loved their music and in my opinion are and always have been one of the best Hip Hop groups alive. Well, after reading this, I’m going to go home and dig out those albums as well as download and catch up on all the ones I’ve missed via iTunes. Thanks for posting.

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  21. Each record of the legendary Roots crew is a gem. Black Thought and ?uestlove are the most prolific artists in hip-hop since Tupac Shakur. The Roots is a living legend…”stars are made to shine”

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  22. As per the Roots, their song “How I Got Over” is honestly one of the best songs I’ve heard in years. I often have it on loop when it comes time to write something down.

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  23. hello, bumslogic,

    love this part – “You write a series of drafts.” yes, that’s true for serious artists/craftsmen and women. that’s probably why the band’s music is long-lasting, ahaha. ^^

    thank you for your well-written review and reminder… happy weekend. :)

    Reply

  24. Hmmm…this was a different kind of review and I must confess that I don’t really listen to the roots but I just might start after reading this blog–apparently I’ve been missing out. Great writing!

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  25. It is a concept piece but like you said the songs can be picked up anywhere which is not always an easy thing to do on a circular album. Def love “Tip the Scales.”

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  26. I agree, but most of the reviews I have read at worse question whether or not Thought pulled the concept off properly, but I think all around it was conceptually superb. No one ever built a statue in honour of a critic anyway.

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  27. I’m sad to say I didn’t realize I’ve missed out on so many Roots albums…I’ll have to remedy that pronto. The Tipping Point is still played on repeat everyday in my mind. This was very well-written, thanks for crying Roots.

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  28. Reblogged this on mynameisveryconfused and commented:
    Loving the roots. generally people of our society tend to shunn music of a certain nature…music like this music that the Roots produce. i believe if we allow ouselves to open up our minds to the beauty of the music beneath the music then we will get rid of all stereo types and just jell….and jelling is always good. Enjoy the read.

    Reply

  29. Thanks! Congrats on getting Freshly Pressed!! I’ve always been a fan of the Roots, probably because they take their writing so seriously. Their beautiful wordplay is romantic, melodic, incisive, sensual, and all kinds of fluid, and coupled with the pure dope-ness of their band, they are definitely unlike any other group out there. Period. Well worth the review. They’ve definitely “…Got Me!”

    Reply

  30. Great !!! I also like HIP HOP Music & Dance also,,,!
    Which poetry written in this post,,, I always sing in Rap style…!

    Reply

  31. […] “Everything you hear me saying on this record is at least the fourth or fifth draft. I would write a verse and then rewrite it and rewrite it. I don’t sit down and write a song, and then slam down the phone like, ‘We got another one!’ and pop some champagne. It’s like if someone’s writing a novel: You write a series of drafts.” – Black Thought of the Roots as quoted in this posting about the greatest hip hop band of all time. […]

    Reply

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