Between collabos with Jim James and Joanna Newsom on their last LP and a lofty multi-part Sufjan Stevens composition on their latest, you wouldn’t be too off the mark to assume that Philly’s Legendary Roots Crew are the most indie-minded rap band on the planet right now; The Gym Class Heroes come close by actually being a band, but lose that battle because there are no Adam Levine guest spots on Undun.

As Late Night With Jimmy Fallon has taught us, The Roots are, definitively, the house band at the coolest party in Heaven. They bring chops to spare, and nod heads vigorously, but they’re also full of good humor (?uestlove and Kirk’s delightful “Black Simon and Garfunkel” gag) and snarky wit (playing Fishbone’s “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” as entrance music for Michele Bachmann) to boot. Heads will gladly acknowledge, however, that Roots albums are rarely sprightly affairs; by my count, 2004’s The Tipping Point was the last time the crew sounded lighthearted on wax (well, you know, The Roots’ version of lighthearted). Subsequent efforts have ranged from fiery indignation (Game Theory) to downright fatalism (the underappreciated, pitch-black Rising Down); us music nerds salivate over The Roots not because they’re such positivity-oozing, unicorns-and-puppies artists, but because, album after album, they simply deliver.

Which brings us to Undun, an album that’ll doubtlessly prove troubling to those who only know them as hip-hop’s most prominent clown princes from their night job; indeed, it can be difficult to reconcile the beaming, laughing octect that delivers crowd-pleasing hip-hop medleys to living rooms all over the country every weeknight with the stone-faced artistes that populate their records. Because, here’s the deal: Undun may sound a good deal more warm and soulful than The Roots’ last few albums, but that veneer is ultimately deceptive. Like Marvin Gaye, all that beauty cloaks an astonishingly weary depth of spirit, and each lyric, each gorgeously haunting chorus, teems with social unrest and fatalism. Indeed, Undun may be the hip-hop generation’s closest single-album analog to What’s Going On to date.

If that sounds like high praise, well, yeah: The Roots just might be the best band in the world right now, and no matter how oppressive their gloominess at times, the fact remains that even their b-material outclasses anyone else in the game. Undun may be exceptionally cloudy, rainy-day music, but in chronicling the life and death of protagonist Redford Stephens – backwards, Memento-style – they’ve created one of their most high-concept, economical records to date. Even as it breezes by at a calculated pace – even with the wordless, four-track-long outro, Undun doesn’t eclipse 40 minutes – every second of Undun seems perfectly calibrated to land with maximum effect. Deep, heartfelt soul drips from standout tracks “Make My” and “One Time”; Roots associate Dice Raw’s latest role as hook-man takes hold almost immediately, the underrated emcee contributing a series of plainspoken, haunting baritone choruses to all of Undun‘s best tunes. Drummer/figurehead ?uestlove keeps his crew in the pocket, as usual, but Black Thought’s upped his game once again, proving with countless quotables that he may be the single most under-praised rapper in the business. His abilities to deliver a concept, to make world-weary a calling card, and to distill 16 bars of sentiment and thematic content into a blistering couplet are unprecedented, and even with The Roots’ usual line-up of ancillary artists on the record (Dice Raw, P.O.R.N., Truck North, recent and welcome addition Phonte), Thought sets the standard every time.

That “Lighthouse” is simultaneously Undun‘s most lovely track and it’s most fatalistic is hardly a coincidence. This is what The Roots do; even if it’s just musically, they locate silver linings when life’s at its most oppressive. Thematically, Undun is a downer, but through a stew of crackerjack rhymes, heart-rendingly soulful hooks, and that terrific electric piano that dances all over the album, they’ve once again defied the odds and made another excellent album. The downbeat never seemed so resilient, so beautiful, than it does when it’s in The Roots’ capable hands; you’ll forgive me if I’m crossing my fingers for a party-rocking respite from the doom next go-round, sure, but as it stands, Undun is a stellar reminder of why The Roots are the best thing going in hip-hop right now. Might as well leave a spot on that year-end list open now, fellow nerds; after all, The Roots don’t demand the crown as much as they sneak up from behind and slyly steal it away.

Grade: A-

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