Song 267: The Roots (feat. Dice Raw), “One Time” (2011)


That up there is one of my all-time favorite record covers. Not only is it a gorgeous photo, I think it beautifully captures the hope and melancholy of Undun, The Roots’ hazy, abstract character portrait. “The photograph itself,” says photographer Jamel Shabazz, “represents the hardships that inner city youth face each day of their lives trying to overcome obstacles and is representative of the lack of resources.”

Undun is easily the Roots’ most abstract record to date. Most of the group’s work, fueled by Questlove’s clockwork percussion and percussive flow by Black Thought and Dice Raw, is immediate and direct. Which isn’t to say that’s simple—The Roots’ masterwork, Things Fall Apart, is especially complex—but it’s there, either exploding, imploding, or unquestionably burning a fuse.

Not so Undun, a brief but affecting record filled with lyrical questions and unresolved musical phrases, not to mention some symphonic touches cribbed from Sufjan Stevens. I love “One Time,” a song that asks, Why bother? Why bother even playing this game, if it’s only rigged to make the disenfranchised lose? Why am I rushing for the bus if it’s only going to bring me to the job that provides low wages and disrespect? All the while, that piano just repeats its circular phrase, over and over, until the repetition breaks for the revelation (sad as it is) in the chorus. To make it to the bottom, such a high climb.

The Roots have never been concerned about providing answers, but Undun finds them at their most ambiguous. Undun isn’t about answers, or even about questions. It’s about shortcomings and dreams deferred. It’s about what happens after questions are asked and no answers are given. It’s also, however, about keeping your head up when it’s hard to; using the littered mattress to find air and light.


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