“May I Stand Unshaken?”
The importance of D’Angelo’s “Unshaken” and Red Dead Redemption 2
*story spoilers for Red Dead Redemption 2 will be discussed in this article.
Developed by Rockstar Games (Grand Theft Auto, Max Payne) Red Dead Redemption 2 released on October 26, 2018, close to a decade since its 2010 predecessor. RDR2 is an open-world action game set in 1899 during the end of the Wild West in the U.S. Set as a prequel to the 2010 original, players took on the role of Arthur Morgan, a member of a group of outlaws led by Dutch van der Linde trekking through the South from the government while coping with modernity and the end of the outlaw/cowboy era. The game was met with rave reviews, praising the expansive open world, innovative gameplay, and tremendous storytelling.
To me, it’s honestly my favourite video game of all time, and probably the last good game to have come out in recent years free of game-breaking bugs and overall disappointment from years of anticipation (I’m looking at you Cyberpunk 2077.).
The game’s score was composed by Woody Jackson, who was responsible for scoring several other of Rockstar Games’ projects. His work on RDR2 invokes a cinematic quality when the score and gameplay match perfectly. Producer Daniel Lanois was brought in to help compose several vocal tracks specifically made for the game. Notable contributions included country musicians Willie Nelson and Rhiannon Giddens, Queens of the Stone Age lead singer Josh Homme, and soul singer D’Angelo. A surprise considering the artist’s extremely low profile (his last album being 2014’s excellent Black Messiah.) and his style of neo-soul and r&b amongst the primarily country/western sound of the other artists.
D’Angelo initially gained interest in the game, having been a fan of the first one. He reached out to Rockstar who invited him to their offices to check out RDR2, where the team felt compelled to have him work on the game’s soundtrack.
His song “Unshaken”, officially released as a single months after RDR2, became an instant favourite among players at the height of the game’s release. Fans were excited because it was the first piece of new music to come from the Virginian singer, but it also played an integral role at a deep emotional point in the game’s story. In this article, let’s examine D’Angelo’s “Unshaken”, and its significance to Red Dead Redemption 2’s narrative.
At this point in the game, Arthur Morgan and his fellow gang of outlaws led by Dutch have been on the run from federal agents for months. While staying at a hideout in the wilderness, they plan to rob a bank downtown to get enough money to escape the fictional city of Saint-Denis.
The robbery goes awry when the gang gets caught by a group of Pinkertons (private detectives) forcing them to flee with whatever they can get their hands on. During the pursuit, two key members from the group Hosea and Lenny are killed, and after an intense shootout, the group splits up. Some return back to their hideout while Arthur, Dutch, and a few other members (Bill, Javier, and Micah, all of whom will play a bigger role by the game’s end.) hop on a boat headed to an island named Guarma, just near Cuba.
The stranded group spends months figuring out how to get back to America, after meeting locals and fighting Cuban soldiers, the gang makes it back home. Arthur manages to steal a horse in a nearby town and takes it to head back to their hideout, alone. As the horse gallops through the night sky, “Unshaken” starts playing. There are no other sounds to be heard throughout the section except for the song.
Some Lyrical Insight
Composed of low-key percussion, mellow piano keys, and some bluesy guitars, “Unshaken” is a contemplative track illustrating Arthur’s mindset as he reflects on what he’s done in life and his determination to survive. D’Angelo’s crooning paints a bleak picture as the song alludes to several story moments that will impact Arthur as the game continues. Let’s dive into the song’s lyrics and dissect the story it tells, starting off with the chorus:
“May I, stand unshaken? Amid, amidst a crashing world”
Inspired by a quote from Sri Paramahansa Yogananda, this question is repeated throughout the song. The “crashing world” refers to 3 things: Arthur’s life as an outlaw, his growing predicament with the law, and his own mortality. When he asks if he can be unshaken, Arthur is essentially asking god if he can remain stoic as he deals with these turmoils.
As America slowly adapts to new technology and civilizations change, the Wild West days are coming to an end, and Arthur can’t face the reality that he must adapt to these changes. The truth is that the simple life and freedom he had as a lawless killer is over, his world is crashing. Throughout the game, Arthur and the gang are on the run from federal agents that want them dead. There’s an ever-growing fear that these people Arthur considers family, will eventually meet their demise in the name of cleansing the Wild West of bandits and outlaws.
There is also of course Arthur’s literal life. As the game continues, Arthur ends up being diagnosed with Tuberculosis. It’s revealed that he contracted TB following a confrontation with a man who had owed the gang money early on in the story. With the lack of medical science at the time, Arthur has been given a death sentence. It’s a pivotal point in the story as Arthur begins to write his wrongs and attempts to seek redemption for the awful life of robberies and killings he lived.
A few lines from several verses also hint at where Arthur’s story will take players. After listening to the song numerous times, I’ve always found the third and fourth verses to be the best examples of allusion to Arthur’s story. Let’s take a look at the last line from the third verse:
“I was once standing tall, I feel my back’s against the wall.”
D’Angelo is referring to the unfortunate betrayal Arthur endures. As the main story comes to an end, players find out that Micah Bell has sided with the Pinkerton agents that have been tracking the group down. As Arthur returns to the gang’s camp to reveal what he’s learned, Micah denies Arthur’s claims. He tries to convince their leader Dutch that Arthur is a liar, the other members (the same ones who escaped to Guarma as mentioned earlier) side with Micah as they believe they can achieve more if they follow him, with their guns aimed at Arthur. This line is so reflective as it shows how betrayed Arthur must’ve felt at this moment, a group of men he once treated like brothers have turned against him, despite him telling the truth.
Another example of D’Angelo’s foreshadowing can be found in the third verse:
“The morning light when it comes to me
It was there, but I could not see
Am I to wander as a wayward son?
Will the hunter be hunted by the smoking gun?”
I’ve interpreted this as Arthur accepting his inevitable death at the end of the main story, succumbing to his TB and wounds sustained from his fight with Micah, Pinkertons, and bounty hunters that the player fends off. The morning light (or death) was there, but Arthur was too blind to see. Within the game, Arthur’s TB is contracted early on but he doesn’t realize until the last third of the narrative where it starts to physically affect him as it worsens. D’Angelo poses two questions that goes through Arthur’s mind with the verse’s last two lines.
“Am I to wander as a wayward son?” or “will the hunter be hunted by the smoking gun” is Arthur asking himself if he can continue living on the run from the law, his former friends, etc. Or will his journey end right here with him dying, whether it be his Tuberculosis or otherwise? To me, it’s a perfect example of the philosophical debate Arthur has as he copes with his journey coming to an end.
D’Angelo’s contribution to the Red Dead Redemption 2 soundtrack will be remembered as one of gaming’s most memorable songs. Thanks to his admiration for the series, he’s crafted a neo-soul western that describes the main protagonist’s inner plight. Every now and again when I listen to “Unshaken”, I still get goosebumps from the song’s lyricism and its parallels to Arthur’s story.
Have you played Red Dead Redemption 2? If so, what are your thoughts on the song and its importance to the game? I’d love to know! Thanks for reading!