Party Like It's 1992
For better or worse, Arrested Development hasn't changed with the times
In a tiny dorm room with a beer-sticky floor, crammed with university-issued modular furniture, we did the Running Man and the Kid-n-Play to almost every song on Arrested Development’s debut album, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in The Life of... It was 1992, and dressed in our oversized button-downs, cuffed sweatpants, scrunch socks and black loafers, we were addicted to the scratching, the sampling and the speechifying on songs like “Fishin’ 4 Religion,” “Tennessee” and “Mr. Wendal,” from a record that was at once accessible, impossibly fresh and deeply political.
But as our dance moves and questionable fashion choices eventually disappeared from view, so too did Arrested Development. The group turned out a less-than-stellar follow-up with Zingalamaduni in 1994, and then faded into foreign markets. Now, 13 years later, Atlanta-based conscience-rapper Speech and his modified band of merry men and women have returned with Since the Last Time.
A few of the tracks feature the kind of funky layering and message-heavy rapping that make me want to Roger Rabbit like a freshman fool. The others? They play like discards from that first, groundbreaking album.
Gone is longtime collaborator Headliner and guesting soul-singer Dionne Farris, though the album isn’t really weaker for it. Speech was always the draw, along with the slap-bass, hiphop beats, loaded lyrics and samples of old-timey harmonica, piano and gospel that adorned his songs. What’s missing here is the inventiveness of that first record. Arrested Development blazed a trail with 3 Years that was followed, in part, by fellow Atlantans Outkast. But now Arrested Development sounds like it’s imitating the artists it has influenced. “Inner City” is essentially a knockoff of the spitfire raps on OutKast’s “B.O.B.,” and “Down & Dirty” sounds a lot like the bouncy bop of “Hey Ya!”
Some would say it’s a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum; if Arrested Development pioneered this kind of music in 1992, maybe it still belongs to the band now. Supporting this argument are the new songs that take Speech’s original style and elevate it: “Miracles” amps up the creativity of 1992 track “Mama’s Always on Stage,” and there’s genius in the thumping drum intro of “Nobody Believes Me Anyway,” which gives way to a vocal hook that sounds like it came from an old soul LP. And “Sao Paulo”—with its intermittent whining guitars and a samba-meets-pop flavor—proves Arrested Development isn’t sleeping.
But other songs tread familiar territory without stacking up—particularly those where Speech’s preach-rap vocals overpower the light layers of instrumentation. There’s nothing particularly unique about the discussion of ethnic relations in “Sunshine,” where the narrator worries he’s betraying his race by being attracted to a white girl (all while a distracting hype-woman punctuates each line and calls out “uhoh” and “won’t you raise your hands”). “How Far Is Heaven?” borrows from, but doesn’t improve upon, the Los Lonely Boys tune. And on the album’s title track, Speech says his band is “a little slower, like Muhammad Ali.” Sadly, with Arrested Development lacking the charisma and charm of an Ali, such an admission is harder to swallow.
“It’s better to write for ourselves and have no public than to write for the public and have no self,” Speech lectures in “Stand.” Arrested Development seemed to achieve a happy medium with 3 Years. Not as much with Since the Last Time. Maybe next time?