The Roots’ ‘Undun’ Album: A Review Roundup

The Roots have enjoyed plenty of success thanks to their forward thinking approach to music and hip-hop culture. Drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and fellow Philadelphia native and front man Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter have manned the controls since 1987, making consistency one of the group’s strongest points. On Tuesday (December 6) the Roots released their 13th studio album, drawing praise from critics across the board. Take a look at some reviews for the Roots’ Undun.

Los Angeles Times: The Roots’ latest studio album is an artful melding of experimental jazz, ’70s R&B, guitar rock flourishes, wall-shattering beats and rhymes that take a scalpel to the existential angst of the hip-hop generation. It’s both bleak and unexpectedly beautiful.

Spin: The music itself is phenomenal, harkening back to Curtis Mayfield and Donny Hathaway’s storytelling classics with understated funk, analog warmth, and just plain tremendous mixing — “Kool On” works wiggly guitars into something irrepressibly funky, and although the impossibly lush, two-minute instrumental coda of “Make My” takes up a relatively large piece of real estate on such a short record, it really should be longer.

New York Times: The music is framed not by booming bass lines — bass parts are rare — but by keyboards, often high and fragile little shards that are far closer to Radiohead’s productions on “Kid A” than to the plush fanfares of current best-selling hip-hop. Echoes of old-school soul appear as a kind of inverse gospel, prayers without hope of redemption: “You’re face down in the ocean/ And no one’s there in the lighthouse,” goes one chorus. When melodies do arrive, they are bittersweet at best, like the one that arises in “Make My,” a deathbed reflection. Amid hints of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Stevie Wonder’s analog synthesizers, the chorus reflects, “They told me that the ends would justify the means,” and, “Maybe I’ll throw in the towel and make my departure from the world.”

Pitchfork: The Roots’ latest album isn’t a sprawling, rise-and-fall crime story, not a condemnation or a veneration of a man living outside the law, not a bullet-riddled grand guignol heavy on explicit details of soldiers getting cut down. It’s a character study of a man whose existential crisis ends only with his death– a death gone largely unspecified, the glamor and tragedy washed over with a doomed resignation. That’s a hard thing to pull off, even for a band as given to deep-thinking concepts as the Roots are. And when your main lyrical catalyst is Black Thought– a man more given to allusions than direct statements– it’s likely that it’ll take a while for the full scope of Undun to really sink in.

TIME: Anyone coming into undun expecting a series of three- and four-minute songs with traditional verse-chorus-verse structures (like what comprised last year‘s How I Got Over) will be let down; the whole thing zips by in under 40 minutes, and only half of its 14 tracks top two and a half minutes. Rather, it’s best to approach it as one cohesive statement that requires at least a handful of close listens to fully sift through. It’s not that the songs here aren’t affecting in and of themselves — a few of them, like “Make My” and “Tip the Scale,” rank among the band’s greatest moments this side of 2002’s Phrenology — but that the rhymes of any one song just don’t hold up well outside the context of the entire story.