I hated this album when I first heard it; my first spin told me that it was more of that piano-heavy, rap-lite, too-brief and all-together safe-sound that they’ve cruised on since How I Got Over (uncoincidentally, around the time they became the house band for Jimmy Fallon). The three skits range from innocuous (the Nina Simone sample, “Theme From the Middle of the Night”) to annoying (“The Devil,” which sounds like a snippet from a rejected musical; “Dies Irae”). The last two songs are write-offs, and longer than the average song length: “The Unraveling” never unravels (compare the drums on that song to what ?uestlove’s doing on “Black Rock”) and only the ending of “Tomorrow” (which sounds like the theme song to a children’s show) can be salvaged.
But on most of the album, they are trying. Harder than ever, actually. I bet Dice Raw, who mostly gave up rapping for pseudo-soul singing on previous albums, read his fan(/hate)-mail, because he delivers one of his best verses on “The Dark (Trinity).” Meanwhile, Black Thought’s verses on “Never,” “When the People Cheer” (“On my existential grind doing consequential dirt / Searchin’ for physical pleasure if I don’t go mental first / Molly poppin’, trolley hoppin’ / Know somebody prolly watchin’ / That ain’t stoppin’ me from coppin’ a feel / Karate choppin’ in this after-hours spot / Watching mommy body rockin’”) and “Black Rock” (where he works “onomatopoeian” into the rhyme scheme) are some of his best verses since Rising Down. Production-wise, they work the mini-symphony that was tacked onto the end of undun into the music as turbulent bridges (see: “The Coming” and “The Dark (Trinity)”). Elsewhere, “Never” is bleaker (and catchier) than the entirety of undun, and the piano line of “When the People Cheer” manages to ultimately add to the sadness of the song (and the record), despite how high-pitched and melodic it is. So yeah, piano-heavy, too-brief but also rap-heavy and definitely not safe.