The Roots “Undun” Release Show Attracts, Well, Everyone

Too bad it was in NYC and not Philly

When they’re not being scolded by NBC for their political commentary on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, ?uestlove and the Roots are typically hard at work on new, original music. Their newest installment, Undun, marks the group’s 13th record in 18 years.

Their show at the Highline Ballroom in NYC on Tuesday night felt exactly how an intimate, hip hop album-release show should: sweaty with the not-so-faint smell of marijuana. The place was packed: women with tattoo sleeves, Gen Xers showing off pictures of their nieces and nephews, kids in cardigans, kids in Nirvana shirts, and gussied-up, 30-something “woo-hoo” girls. (If you’ve never been to the Chelsea club, the place has an upper level with table seating and a full restaurant menu. The floor is filled with the GA, hands-up, bob-with-the-bass crowd. It’s like if Jay-Z owned a cabaret.)

On Undun, the Roots use every genre they can get their hands on to tell the story of Redford Stephens—an urban youth disoriented after his untimely death. Combining guitar, heavy drums, a brass section, and classical elements, the Roots set out capture the duality of Redford’s attempt to do what’s right while living a hustler’s lifestyle.

It’s not often that a DJ at a hip hop show at 10:30 on a Tuesday calls for the 25-and-older crowd to make some noise. Hot 97’s Mr. Cee appealed to that demographic as he spun the crowd through a ’90s hip hop lesson before the Roots hit the stage. Kool G Rap. Common. Camp Lo. Outkast.

The Roots opened the show—rightly so—with a ?uestlove drum solo before diving into Undun. MC Black Thought’s attire reinforced the sundry nature of the crowd rapping along with him. He rocked one glove like Michael, shades like Bono, and a muscle tee like Dre. Not many hip hop concerts attract middle-aged men in driving caps. Then again, most hip hop shows don’t feature 40-year-old MCs in driving caps.

Soon, Black Thought started into “Sleep,” the song that describes Redford’s realization of his demise. “Illegal activity controls my black symphony,” he rapped in the sinuous number. “Orchestrated like it happened incidentally. Oh, there I go from a man to a memory. Damn, I wonder if my fam will remember me.”

The group broke off from Redford’s story to cover Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” with a 15-minute brass solo, and to play some older songs like “Break You Off” before getting back to the narrative.

“If you’ve got ’em, smoke ’em,” suggested Black Thought as he delved into “Tip the Scale”—the final lyrical portion of Redford’s story. The guy toward the back of the crowd obliged, and the crowd popped as Black Thought rapped: “Soldiers of the streets with eighth-grade diplomas and the world awaitin’ their shoulders as a bonus. Let he without sin live without sin. Until then, I’ll be doin’ dirty jobs like swampmen.”

They wrapped up the show with the heavy drum instrumental from ?uestlove that also closes Undun—a lofty project from a group always eager to challenge themselves. Undun isn’t the best album of the year, nor is it the greatest version of the tale of an urban youngster’s struggle. But, the experimental album demonstrates, again, why the Legendary Roots Crew is such a revered and iconic group, a pillar holding up the institution of original hip hop among the masses residing in Sample City. The Roots have shown—to the tune of 18 years in the industry and four Grammys—that their existential approach may not top charts, but it adds depth and art to a genre that has grown exponentially vapid.

Now if they could just bring that show back to Philly, we’d be all set.