May all your wishes be granted, goes the ominous blessing. And how can Speech complain? The leader of Atlanta’s Arrested Development saw every would-be rock-star dream come true. He made the record he wanted, sold millions and had his shot at reforming the face of pop music. It hardly seems fair that the now-defunct band’s name is almost synonymous with failed promise.
Speech is Todd Thomas, whose parents published a small Milwaukee newspaper. 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of… (the title memorializes how long after forming at the Art Institute of Atlanta it took the band to sign a recording contract) is quite a debut, a logorrheic spill of irresistible rhythms, by turns uncompromising and lovey-dovey rhetoric and, oh yes, a pair of amazing hit singles in “People Everyday” and “Tennessee.” The album epitomizes the goal of alternative hip-hop: to harness the energy and immediacy of the music but drop the less savory elements that had come to define it in the eyes of many, thereby creating a worthy successor to the music of both Sly Stone and the Last Poets. Looked at one way, the record pulls it off. “Tennessee,” a truly wonderful and unconventional song, is a sobering and deeply religious tale of racial self-reflection and uneasy history. Overfamiliarity may have blinded listeners to the originality of its funky, off-beat beginning, dead-on lyrics (“Walk the roads my forefathers walked/Climb the trees my forefathers hung from”) and the passionate, beautiful wails from Dionne Farris at song’s end. In “Fishin’ 4 Religion,” Speech aims a bazooka blast at black churches (“They’re praising a god that watches you weep/And doesn’t want you to do a damn thing about it”) and, in a rewrite of Stone’s “Everyday People,” goes after gangsta rap, explicitly and violently. Speech’s hippiesque, new agey vision-which has obscured the tougher side of his persona-is uncovered here: one of his objections to gangsta rap is that its brand of violence is nihilistic and self-defeating, not that it’s violent per se. “Brothers wit their AK’s and the 9mms/Need to learn how to correctly shoot them/Save those rounds for a revolution.” Speech can be a drag: his efforts to write about positive role models and such can be smarmy, his feel-good rhetoric can be annoying and, despite his attempts in that direction, he’s definitely not a love man. But when he pulls it together-as on the lulling electronic construction and moving recitation that make up the closing “Washed Away”-it’s possible to believe that much better things might be coming.
On top of the world, Arrested Development was asked to contribute a song to Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and delivered “Revolution,” a minor-strength raveup based on an African chant. Unplugged was a disappointment, too. The record has eleven songs from the MTV special, and then, inexplicably, seven of the same tracks with the vocals mixed out.
In 1993, Arrested Development did Lollapalooza; that same year, Speech spread his enterprising wings and provided music, production, scratches and the words to one song for Dropping Soulful H20 on the Fiber, the debut by Milwaukee’s Gumbo!. Telescoping AD’s sweeping reach and analytic outlook down to a more intimate setting, the soulful Afro-centric trio’s engaging album disproves the presumptions of clonedom: although some are voiced by Deanna Dawn, precocious seventeen-year-old mainman Fulani Faluke’s lyrical ideas are his own.
The true followup album to 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days, Zingalamaduni (the title is purportedly Swahili for “beehive of culture”) was a major commercial flop. But the worst that can be said of the record is that it’s more of the same, and there’s nothing wrong with that. “Ease My Mind” and “Shell” have simple and unaffected grooves, and Speech still seems to be able to construct radio-worthy songs, even if none of these actually made it there. But a couple of things about the album are worrisome. One is that Speech’s lyrics are less subtle; he can’t seem to move out of political base-touching and on to tougher and more personal topics. The second is that when he tries, he sounds like a kook. “Mister Landlord” is unattractively strident; worse is “Warm Sentiments,” in which the singer chides his girlfriend for having an abortion without consulting him and comes off incredibly insufferable and paternalistic.
In January ’96, Speech returned with a self-titled solo album and the announcement that Arrested Development had disbanded. Speech shows that he can still construct a lulling, even groovy song cycle, but at this point he just doesn’t have the lyrical chops to give it substance. The album is far too dependent on pat sloganeering (“If you think the system’s workin’/Ask somebody who ain’t”) and filler, like a yawn-inducing recitation of hip-hop honors (“Impregnated Tid Bits of Dope Hits”). The kookiness hasn’t left, either. This time, the submission is “Ghetto Sex.” Speech thinks there’s too much of it, and guess which gender he points the finger at? Hint: It’s the one that wears tight dresses.