There are some incredibly evocative songs on the Roots’ new album “undun.” The electronic pulse of “Sleep” sounds like molten gold dripping from a leaky spigot. The bass at the finale of “Make My” plows tunnels through the cumulus Alps of heaven.
So it’s too bad the one song that the Roots will most likely be remembered for in 2011 is a 16-second swatch of Fishbone’s “Lyin’ A-- B----.”
As the house band on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” the Philadelphia-born hip-hop collective recently spat up the rowdy ska tune as Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann traipsed out onstage for an interview. (Fishbone’s 1985 debut EP clearly wasn’t on Bachmann’s iPod — she was oblivious to the prank.)
The band considered it a joke. Certain corners of the media considered it an outrage. NBC apologized to Bachmann and “severely reprimanded” the Roots. Last week, with the smoke just starting to clear, bandleader Questlove said the stunt was “absolutely not” worth it.
But regardless of whether the decision was in poor taste, it underscored a bigger point about the Roots: The band members might spend their work week taking Jimmy in and out of commercial, but they’ve never stopped thinking of themselves as artists.
It’s an idea addressed more explicitly with “undun,” the group’s most adventurous outing since 1999’s “Things Fall Apart.” But where that millennial triumph folded hip-hop into new shapes like so much origami paper, “undun” patiently allows itself to spread in every direction, the way water spills across a tabletop.
That’s just the music, though. Lyrically, this is a concept album with a linear narrative that frontman Black Thought follows with admirable discipline. (And it’s nowhere near as tiresome as that might sound.) The story begins with the death of the semi-fictional drug dealer named Redford Stephens, imitating the popular last-scene-first device that Hollywood is so fond of.
After an opening drone that suggests a flat-lining EKG monitor, Black Thought raps from the perspective of a spirit freshly escaped from the body: “From a man to a memory. . . . I wonder if my fam will remember me.”
Then, back to the beginning, where Stephens’s life slowly takes shape and quickly splinters. Different voices step in to inhabit his first-person, including ascendant Mississippi rapper Big K.R.I.T. and longtime Roots collaborator Dice Raw. All stay true to the character without derailing into hokey, hip-hopera terrain.
Meantime, the band handles each of these diaphanous backing tracks with a pleasing and elegant touch. The album concludes with an orchestral suite that’s every bit as lovely as the beat-driven stuff on the album’s front end. When a band spends nearly three years rehearsing in a dressing room at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York, this is apparently what you get.
Two Decembers ago, Questlove said he was paranoid about the Roots being known merely as “Jimmy Fallon’s band.” Hopefully, he’s gotten over that. The Roots have inarguably made television a better place for music, while life on television has inarguably made the Roots a better band.
Let’s hope they never quit their day job. Or get fired.
“Make My,” “One Time,” “Sleep”