Independent (April 6, 2010)
Review by Trey Palmisano
An old soul such as myself loves the classic sounds of ’90s hip hop. When considering what songs defined the hip hop landscape of that decade, songs like “Tennessee” inevitably find their way onto the play list. The powerful vocals delivered over the chorus demonstrated everything that could be right about hip hop before gross commercialization squeezed the life out of originality and held the genre hostage as a platform for strong political statements. It was enough to earn Arrested Development some Grammy’s too in 1993 before the group eventually broke up in 1996.
Nevertheless, a few decades later, Arrested Development is back, and determined to prove, howbeit to a much less mainstream audience, that hip hop can still move people to positive action. And while that may be true, and there’s certainly a lot of injustice in the world, no one is expecting a full-out assault anytime soon on the big record labels. Public Enemy wasn’t able to sustain its war against the industry. De La Soul brought something different, fresh, and trendyâ€¦for a time. Even NWA, who many consider more mainstream, but whose controversy was also steeped in powerful messages of economic oppression and the realities of living in Compton, Ca., may have had the best shot, but even their star eventually faded. Now that hip hop has once again embraced a new generation of young voices carrying on the same tired message of money-worshiping, weed-smoking, party-themed music, what kind of mark can conscious rap hope to make? Arrested Development is back to test those waters.
There are good things and bad things happening on the latest album. The good thing is that they sound just like they did in the 1990s, so fans of their sounds won’t be disappointed by a continuity that has remained their trademark. The bad news is they sound just like they did in the 1990s, so the question of relevancy will obviously haunt this album.
But of course, positive change, action, social and cultural awareness, even cries of black power â€“ all these themes remain relevant for the oppressed. My biggest gripe with the album is precisely this point: there is an awful lot in there. So much, that at times, it feels more like a sermon than a story, and you lose the point of what they are protesting. And when Speech fires off his verses at maximum thrust, there’s just too much to absorb.
There is a lot of talk about the social ills of commercial rap; and it’s all been done before. Perhaps jaded people such as me don’t see change coming from within the groups to whom this album will likely be received anymore than a pastor who preaches to his congregation on Sunday morning about the social ills of society is making a difference in that society when the group to whom he’s preaching is already in agreement. The best thing that could happen for an album like this is that it transcends the Sphere of Hip Hop crowd.
The album even tackles environmental issues, and for me, within the context of a hip hop song, “Greener” was a first, but it ultimately didn’t work. There are even verses in this song on eating organically as a remedy for kidney dialysis. If you’re scratching your head, I was too. Despite all the attempts at cultivating change on this album, it all still feels far away, in a time forgotten.
But I’m not alone in this judgment. Speech himself admits on one track that there was a movement in hip hop that made it seem like true change for the better was possible, but at some point the hip hop champions of conscious rap lost momentum. Perhaps the industry just was too big, too unrelenting, too entrenched in the consumer world, so that only an act of God could produce real changeâ€¦literally.
While I’ve focused a lot on the message and motivations, the music itself remains typical Arrested Development, the lilting vocals took over almost every song, and while the rhyme delivery is solid, the irony of the upbeat music with the very serious-sounding topics continues to throw me for a loop. I came away from the album feeling like there was a lot wrong with the world, but because of the lack of focus, wouldn’t know where to begin to address it.
Where this album will do well is with die-hard fans of Arrested Development’s sound. That’s still there. But just like the group’s namesake, I felt the album was trying to escape its own mold, to be more than it could be, only to be stifled in the end.