[Def Jam]

The latest from hip-hop’s hippest band is a concept album that tells the fictional—although all too believable—story of Redford Stephens, a low-level street hustler who makes all the wrong choices on his way to an early end. That’s not giving anything away: The Roots tell this story in reverse, rewinding Stephens’ life through songs carefully constructed to avoid glorifying his brief and unfortunate time in the game—bandleader Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson has said some of MC Black Thought’s verses went through as many as a dozen rewrites to strike the proper tone. The music is just as tight. A catchy guitar line drifts below a layer of electric piano on the soulful slow jam “Make My,” Questlove’s boom-bap beat anchors a tinkling piano part and terse rhymes on “The OtherSide,” and gauzy, cinematic strings dance through closer “Finality.” In 39 minutes, neither a word nor a beat is wasted. –Eric R. Danton

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