Celebrate this hip-hop band's return, but let's do it for the right reason: skills.
Earlier this year, I specifically addressed rappers during a review of Prodigy's Return of the Mac. We had a few artist-related issues to discuss. Now, we in the United States are being treated to a new album from Arrested Development, the musically eclectic outfit best known for their chart-walloping 1992 debut, 3 Years, 5 Months, and 2 Days in the Life Of…. The "new" LP, Since the Last Time, was released last year to an exclusively non-US market. In addition to the handclapping, foot stomping music to be found on the album, Since the Last Time provides us with the perfect opportunity to discuss a few things, as consumers, critics, and lovers of hip-hop. Rappers, please feel free to follow this discussion at your leisure, but your presence here isn't mandatory.
There are two current hip-hop trends that should be of concern to us, and both of them apply squarely to Arrested Development.
Trend Number One: Making a Comeback
Arrested Development's homecoming is cause for celebration. On one level, the group returns "home" to the United States after cultivating a following around the world. In the larger view, the group returns to hip-hop in general, as the group, spearheaded by founder and chief emcee Speech, has been missing in action from the studio album market since 1994's Zingalamaduni.
Those in the know will remember the hit song "People Everyday". Maybe you still keep it in your play lists, like I do. Also, there's the once-ubiquitous "Tennessee", the song most associated with Arrested Development, not only for its wistful plea for relief and enlightenment ("Take me to another place / Take me to another land / Make me forget all that hurts me / Let me understand your plan"), but also for its rather bizarre interlude in which band member Headliner gets challenged to a game of horseshoes! You might think you're doin' somethin' if you can recall Arrested Development's song about homelessness, "Mr. Wendal", or their contribution to the Malcolm X movie soundtrack, "Revolution", but if you don't remember the horseshoe challenge in "Tennessee", I don't know what to say about you. Go back and study the tapes.
Nevertheless, aside from Speech's solo projects, as well as a few "Best of" and let's-remix-their-hits albums, we haven't heard much from the Arrested Development camp. At least not on wax, tape, or CD. There was the 2005 appearance on Hit Me Baby One More Time, during which Arrested Development edged out the likes of CeCe Peniston ("Finally, it has happened me…") and Tiffany ("I think we're alone now…") for top honors in the show's competition of nostalgia.
There was also the band's trademark infringement action against Fox over the television show Arrested Development. Generally, the touchstone of a trademark infringement suit is the plaintiff's ability to show a likelihood of confusion between the plaintiff's mark and the defendant's mark. In the Arrested Development case, the argument would be that the TV show's title is so similar to the band name that the public would be confused as to the source of the mark. At the time, my legal friends were laughing at the suit, joking, "Nobody can get you confused with anything if nobody remembers who you are," and, "Does Arrested Development still exist as a band? You have to use your trademark 'in commerce'. You know, you can't have no 'mark' without the 'trade'."
Well, har dee har har. Make jokes all you want, but Arrested Development came back in a big way with Since the Last Time. The piano-driven title track sets it off, getting us up to speed on the group's reunion, in particular how it feels to record and perform together again after so many years.
Some things are different, updated even, like the fact that Speech's verses are no longer delivered in the folksy sing-song-y style of his '90s efforts. Perhaps that's for the better, as we find Speech and company flipping styles in a variety of patterns over the R&B and soul hooks that mostly replace the blues and reggae vibes of their debut. Lyrically, the microphone skills are most impressively displayed in "Inner City", a frenetic ride through our urban gridlock.
Other things, like Arrested Development's genre-blending musicianship, should never change and, luckily, the group retains this trait. This time, it comes through as a collection of handsomely varied tracks rather than an amalgam of flavors in each individual song. Yet, as a whole, the record exudes the group's sense of harmony and familiarity, filled with mature, compassionate lyricism and warm backgrounds that run the gamut from straight hip-hop (title track, "Nobody Believes Me Anyway") to R&B hooks ("How Far is Heaven", "Stand") to a smidgeon of gospel ("Miracles") to a shot of South American energy in "Sao Paulo" resembling George Duke's "Cravo E Canela" and "Brazilian Love Affair".
And so the band name "Arrested Development" is back in commercial circulation, which we can't say for the TV show. Ha! Looks like hip-hop wins again. I thought I told you that we wouldn’t stop!
Meanwhile, Arrested Development's return is in good company. In 2006 and 2007, we've seen quite a few "comebacks", including albums from X-Clan, Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian, Wise Intelligent of Poor Righteous Teachers, Jeru the Damaja, and Redman. That's not all of them either, and we haven't even discussed Jay-Z's extended retirement from retirement, the anticipated returns of Rakim and Scarface, or the Wu-Tang revival. Who knows, maybe we'll get that Detox album from Dr. Dre. And, oh yeah, I'm betting it won't be a "hip-hop" release, but isn't it about time for a Sade album?
Trend Number Two: Conscious Rappers vs. The Gangstas
Hip-hoppers, there's a battle going on out there, the one between "socially conscious music" versus "gangsta rap", "trap music", "bling", or whatever you want to call it. The battle's been going on since the '90s, perhaps more among critics and listeners than between the artists themselves, but it exists just the same.
Thanks to the continuing dialogue about rap's lyrical content, or lack thereof depending on your viewpoint, the "conscious rap versus crap rap" debate is in full effect. For our purposes, it's interesting that a group like Arrested Development, willing participants in the debate back in the '90s, can rejoin it in the current market. In a way, it demonstrates the old adage that the more things change the more they stay the same.
We, as commentators, seem to enjoy fueling the schism with little digs like, "In a genre saturated with bling, misogyny, violence, decadence, and deteriorating family values, the new work by MC Reedz-a-lot is a welcome relief." Or we'll say stuff like, "MC Kree-ate-iff, one of the few rappers making records that matter these days, releases his long awaited album Kree-ate-iff shyt."
Very strange commentary methinks, because it suggests that the rappers you like are only "good" because the other ones are so bad. It's not that your favorite rappers deserve attention based on the actual songs, or at least because they stack up so well against all other artists regardless of genre. Nah, they deserve attention simply because they are "peaceful", like Common, or because the albums didn't use a lot of "bad words", like Chamillionaire's Ultimate Victory and Andre 3000's Class of 3000. The Common, Chamillionaire, and Andre 3000 releases are good, but they're not "good" by default. They're good because they're good!
Besides, why are "peace" and "consciousness" supposed to be in such short supply when we keep getting so much of it? In 2007 alone, we've had albums by: Talib Kweli, Panacea, Y-Society, Brother Ali, Common, Pharoahe Monch, Mr. J. Medeiros, KRS-One & Marly Marl, Blu & Exile, Public Enemy, Zeph & Azeem, Charon Don & DJ Huggy, Polyrhythm Addicts, Blue Scholars, SoCalled, Serengeti, Black Panther, Unagi & Infinito, ScholarMan, and more. Heck, even Dr. Cornell West, yeah, the Ivy League professor, not to be confused with the "College Dropout", released a "conscious" album this year. Sorry, H-Unit (better known as Harvard), you should've held on to emcee West 'cause Never Forget is kinda dope.
So let's not get suckered into divisiveness. Since the Last Time contains songs that embody hope, social commentary, history, and plain ol' danceable jams. We should praise Arrested Development, if we are so inclined, because they are an excellent group, period, not just in hip-hop but also in music as a whole. We should recommend them because their songwriting has actually improved in all this time, not simply because they don't curse a lot. So what if some other, anonymous dude rhymes about rims? What's wrong with rims anyway? Wait, I know what it is; when they spin, they hypnotize you and make you forget how to download free music, thereby forcing you to buy the album. C'mon.
I wouldn't champion Arrested Development as an "alternative" to "gangsta rap" or "violent lyrics", but rather as investigators of the human condition. In particular, the group pursued the question of what it means to be "black", as demonstrated by the "Afrikan" versus "n*gga" parable of their hit "People Everyday". In the song, the peaceful brotha tries to get his chill on, but belligerent brothas won't stop messin' with him, leading to an ass whoopin' of near-Ice Cube proportions.
The song has been earmarked as a pro-peace tune, despite its very clear statement that the bullies got "stomped by an Afrikan". Personally, I've only been able to reconcile the song as a struggle between mindsets, the progressive "Afrikan" view against a regressive, self-destructive model or, as Chuck D put it on his 1996 solo album The Autobiography of Mistachuck, "Can you kill the n*gga in you?" The "stomping", then, takes place in the psyche, and has repercussions for self-esteem and self-image.
Admittedly, the question of "blackness", what it is and what it means, is storied and complex, and far more complicated than can be captured by a song or a music review, so that's not my intention. Instead, I'm saying that identifying "blackness" and locating it by definition is something we generally don't do when "race" is the subject. We accept it as a given, and then go from there. One of Arrested Development's contributions has been to challenge us to seek definition. What exactly does "race" mean? Is it merely a social construct? What are its cultural aspects? Is there a spiritual component?
Moreover, Arrested Development's approach emphasized the commonalities between human beings without necessarily de-emphasizing the importance of our social constructs (i.e. color, class, creed). Careful to balance the practical implications of "race" in our societies with the common ground of being classified as members of "the human race", the group offers a song like "Sunshine" on their latest album. In it, Speech walks us through the consummation of an interracial relationship, delivered through the first person narrative of a musician, although Speech later clarifies that he's married to a black woman in "real life". "This song's not an autobiography," he seems to be saying.
The song is breezy and catchy, yet it happily sidesteps the close-to-worn Roy Ayers "Everybody Loves the Sunshine" sample I was expecting from the title. Maybe the song fits within the established paradigm of "we're all the same" and "we all bleed red" anthems, but it goes a bit further and becomes noteworthy for its recognition of the historical and communal contexts within which interracial relationships develop. It's all the more compelling on an album that includes "I Know I'm Bad", which alludes to intrinsic historical pride, recalling Nas' "I Can" right down to the chanting children's voices, and invokes a kinship with heroes James Brown, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, and Marcus Garvey. Even "Christ Himself" gets a shout out.
You might counter all this by saying, "Easy, Champ. Have a look at Arrested Development's website and their interviews. They've been touting themselves as an 'alternative' to 'violent noise', devoted to inspiring people to 'rise above today's one-side view of hip-hop'."
Yeah, I know. But that doesn't mean we have to adopt the "peace hip-hop vs. violence rap" dichotomy. It's a marketing strategy. As comedian George Carlin pointed out some time ago, it's the same strategy that makes advertisers call food "hearty" or "robust", or call soup "home style" to disguise the fact that it wasn't made at home and they sell it in a can. They want us to think it's "tasty". Likewise, it turns "talented artists" into "conscious rappers", as opposed to…what? Unconscious? Maybe we meant to label them as "rappers with a conscience" and the phrase got sidetracked. Or maybe our expectations are too low.
So don't fall for it, y'all. Support Arrested Development because they've crafted quality music and because you'll enjoy the album. Do it for the same reason Dr. Dre's The Chronic is a classic or Scarface's The Fix is so well regarded: they've got skills, okay?