The phrase “concept album” might conjure up rock classics like Tommy, The Wall, and Ziggy Stardust, but The Roots’ Undun—out this week—reminds us that hip-hop too carries a proud legacy in that field. In fact, the concept album, in the sense of a pop opera, is perfectly suited for hip-hop: Rap is a more verbal art form than rock, and rappers tend to be better storytellers than rockers.
The name Undun comes from the Guess Who song of the same name, but the primary influence the group has cited is Prince Paul’s A Prince Among Thieves—a record that self-appointed “Dean of American Rock Critics” Robert Christgau called “the closest thing to a true rock opera you've ever heard.” Both albums concern a well-intentioned protagonist who is driven into the drug trade and toward his own untimely death. (This wouldn’t be a Slate article if I didn’t make a comparison to The Wire, but Questlove himself has pointed out that the character was inspired by that series’ Avon Barksdale.)
Prince Paul looms large over the history of hip-hop concept albums: All his original solo releases can be considered as such, and he produced one of the first classics of the genre, 1991’s De La Soul Is Dead. But Paul is not alone. Indeed, most hip-hop LPs could be called concept albums if one uses the broader definition of the term: They usually have a dominant theme—think of Kanye’s trilogy of College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation—along with skits around that theme. But even if your definition requires a stronger narrative arc (something often indiscernible in prog-rock efforts), hip-hop still offers a wealth of examples: Jay-Z’s American Gangster, Outkast’s Idlewild , supergroup Deltron 3030’s Deltron 3030.
On the occasion of Undun—perhaps 2011’s last real contender for album of the year—we asked Roots drummer and bandleader Questlove to pick his top five hip-hop concept albums. Somewhere in between promoting the new album, leading the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and getting his hair shampooed (which might take a while) he sent along a list of his five favorites, from a couple of the classics mentioned above to an all-instrumental record from J Dilla.
5) Prince Paul – A Prince Among Thieves
4) Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…
3) MF Doom – MM.. Food
2) J Dilla - Donuts
1) De La Soul - De La Soul Is Dead