a requiem for redford stephens

6 Dec

Undun tells the complex story of a fictional drug dealer from Philly named Redford Stephens

It’s rare when an album asks deserving questions yet doesn’t let the message overshadow the music. But that’s what The Roots has done with its tenth studio album, Undun, which does for Philadelphia what The Wire did for Baltimore—portraying the dark and ruinous underworld of a drug trade that preys disproportionately on certain races and classes, especially their young.

The record traces the last hours in the life of Redford Stephens, a fictional Philly man whom Roots drummer ?uestlove says was inspired in part by The Wire’s Avon Barksdale. A low-level drug dealer, Stephens is a protagonist but not quite a hero. Over funk-fueled bass lines, ?uestlove’s signature beats, and a tasteful sprinkling of soul, the story is unraveled—backwards from the time of death—by MC Black Thought and a handful of guests, including Aaron Livingston, one half of Icebird.

It’s hardly a holiday record, though it does include a cameo by indie darling Sufjan Stevens, whose “Redford (for Yia-Yia and Pappou)” also helped inspire the Roots’ character and comprises the final four tracks of the album, interpreted in various styles. The third of these segments, “Will to Power,” is the most compelling, showing ?uestlove battling avant-garde pianist DD Jackson in a frenzied duel that owes more to free jazz than R&B.

It’s not untruthful to say the music on Undun stands alone—it doesn’t need its narrative any more than Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life needed its—but the words add a weight that transforms it from a solid hip-hop release into a powerful record. Musically, it ventures into some surprising territory, and lyrically, it communicates an urgent message.

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Originally published by ALARM Press  

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