December 15, 2011 at 10:26 am

The Roots’ iOS App Brings Documentary Depth to Undun

undun roots album app redford stephens questlove jimmy fallonWhen I heard that everybody’s favorite instrument-wielding, Bachmann-baiting, bona fide hip-hop and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon house band extraordinaires, The Roots, would be releasing an app album, my interest was piqued.

This group has spent the last two decades infusing classic, head-knocking rap with jazzy instrumentals (and, lately, spacey electronics), so I was excited to see them follow Björk’s lead into the great interactive beyond — a forward-thinking move that would seem natural for a band used to working outside the established constraints of genre.

But I’d misunderstood. While Björk’s Biophilia set a high water mark for apps that feel essential to an album’s experience, interactive and fully ingrained in the aesthetics of its music, The Roots’ undun app (free for a limited time) feels like more of an accessory to the main product — the album undun — which is a twenty-first century update of Pink Floyd The Wall (figuratively).

Undun tells the story of Redford Stephens, who grows from a bright, Nietzsche-quoting kid into a hardened criminal over the course of 14 songs. Like The Wall, it’s heavy stuff, with the requisite proggy excesses, including an awesome free-jazz freakout and, no joke, a string-quartet cover of Sufjan Stevens. Also like The Wall, undun improves when you focus on the songs instead of the grand overarching theme.

An interactive approach to the songs might have helped emphasize those songs, but the makers of undun, the app, didn’t see things my way. This app adds to the album’s narrative, like bonus scenes to a documentary DVD, but barely acknowledges the music. The meat of the app consists of six interviews with people who knew Redford at different stages in his life, adding to nuance to his transformation from bright kid to tough guy.

You also get two arty music videos featuring songs from the album, some lyric sheets, and five nice images without any context, but that’s it.

the roots undun concept album lyrics

Undun's bland-looking lyric sheets.

The app treats the album more like a movie than like music, and none of it allows the user to get more involved. It’s more of a lean-back experience that invites you to sit back, watch, read, and listen. After using some of the more interactive apps out there, it felt sort of old-fashioned.

I checked with some friends to see what they thought, and they hit the nail on the head. My girlfriend felt like it was more of an informative website than an app, while my brother compared it to Enhanced CDs from the 90s, which loaded bonus content when you put them in your PC’s CD-ROM drive.

Granted, there’s not much wrong with the more passive, so-called “lean back” apps, and I use plenty of them on a regular basis. They either A) look really nice or B) present some compelling reason to exist on my phone, and I didn’t feel like Undun qualified, beyond the allure of those interviews. Like the old Enhanced CDs, once you’ve seen the bonus content, there’s little reason to go back.

That said I did enjoy parts of the app. Despite a hammy script, the six interviews are shockingly well-acted; several times, I forgot that I was hearing about a fictional character, and not an actual close friend from the interviewee’s youth.

There is a clear value in watching those videos once, at least (and, for now, the app is free, so why not?). Listening to them makes me want to go back to the album and search like a detective for clues in the songs — links between the record itself and the app’s content, which was, I suspect, precisely the intent. If enjoy the album, and the songs on it, you’ll probably enjoy watching these interviews flesh them out. You just won’t get to play around with the music yourself.

Fans of the record will get something out of this, but from a progress perspective, if a band is going to experiment with apps as album companions, I’d prefer they aim high and fail big. I’m glad a group as high-profile as The Roots is thinking about apps, but I hope that if they inspire others to do the same, they take the ball and run a little further with it.

This app succeeds as a way to deliver these videos, but maybe The Roots have more ambitious stuff up their sleeves. We say this because The Roots’ vocalist Black Thought clearly shares our love for Apple’s wireless audio streaming technology .

Our favorite lyric: “The heat of the day, the long robe of muerte/That soul is in the atmosphere like AirPlay.”