Courtesy of the artist
An image of the character Redford Stephens, taken from the iPhone app promoting the new album undun, by The Roots
You could call The Roots one of our best bands, and you wouldn't be wrong, but it might be more correct to call them one of our most reliable. You can turn on the TV every weeknight and see them perform on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Since Organix, their 1993 debut, The Roots has put out a studio album just about every other year. The musicians collaborate constantly — in the 17 months between their two most recent albums, they've acted as the backing band on albums by John Legend and Betty Wright.
The band's 10th studio album, undun, comes out on Tuesday, and it feels like a perfect Roots album for this moment: it showcases a working-band's confidence and the lack of pressure the musicians seem to feel to fit into anyone's idea of what a Roots album should sound like. undun is a concept album about the way circumstance can turn life into a trap, told in reverse: a fictional central character whose name is never mentioned in the album itself (we know it's Redford Stephens only because producer/drummer ?uestlove has said so in interviews and press releases) dies in the second song. The decisions that led him to the bullet's path are sketched out over the next 30 minutes, but the music and the rapping are so seamlessly presented that it's easy to let the narrative slip into the background. As far as monumental, career-defining works go, it's an oddly quiet one.
So perhaps to combat the fact that some listeners might just take their newest quality product for granted, the musicians are taking a steps to shine a spotlight on undun. Yesterday the band released a version of the album packaged as an app for iPhones and iPads with videos, staged interviews with people who "knew" Redford, photos and lyrics.
The four videos, which the band has also released on the Internet over the last month, go a long way to expressing how seriously it took the album's concept. Each clip opens with a black screen and the sound of a ticking clock before a quote appears, followed by a time stamp. Then we see our main character, Redford, his face often obscured by shadow or an oversized hoodie, shot in crisp, flat black and white.
Each video shows you a different, seemingly random point in Redford's life, but placed in order, they sketch out the rough outline of the album's narrative. Check them out below, and then go listen to the album in full. That the Roots are still capable of making great music might not be a surprise, but the depth of undun's story is affecting, and it's nice of the band, which does so much else, to have given us a key to help unlock it.