The Roots have delivered increasingly poignant and thematically focused records on life's trials. undun, their 13th album, is their most emotive, urgent, and (at less than 40 minutes) brief work. Beginning with his death and working backward, it chronicles the life of fictional Redford Stephens, a character who is a blank canvas for the experiences of lead emcee Black Thought and satellite players Phonte, Dice Raw, and Truck North (among others) and carries the social relevance of Sly & The Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On and the heartfelt tenderness of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? Stephens is neither good nor evil, simply a person with problems to solve and a system to come to terms with. His death is worth celebrating for its normalcy, whether he's hoping his family misses him in death ("Sleep") or if he's promising to go down fighting ("The OtherSide"). Creative director/drummer ?uestlove has never been more cutting, bringing exigency to the piano-pounding "One Time," the blood-letting funk of "Kool On," or the scattershot, discomforting four-part closing reinterpretation of Sufjan Stevens' "Redford." undun proves that the Roots can trump Kanye and/or Jay-Z in the same year, making this 2011's best.
★★★★ (out of 5 stars)