Recently I’ve been diggin around in my record collection and listening to some classic albums. I’ve listened to BDP’s ‘Edutainment’, ED O.G. & Da Bulldogs ‘Life Of A Kid In The Ghetto’, Brand Nubian’s ‘All For One’ and PE’s ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’ amongst others. As much as they are all musically wonderful albums they also have something this else in common. They are all albums that pay more than lip service to social commentary. You might go as far as saying that that they are all message raps.
The upshot of all of this listening was that I had very happy ears and a profound sense that we, hip hop heads, should all be wearing black to signify our mourning of the message rap. When did it happen? How did we allow it? I have a pretty good idea of who might be particularly culpable. Let’s just say that I can’t imagine Mr Chuck teaming up with a giant electronics corporation to sell headphones.
Anyway, gripings of a fusty old man aside, it would seem that I’m not the only one who is feeling the same way about the state of hip hop and the state of modern society in general. Speech and his Arrested Development cohorts are back with a new album to commemorate the 20th anniversary of ‘3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of…’.
Having listened to the album a few times it seems that it’s not just me and Harry Belafonte who think the rappers of today should be using their mirrors for taking a long, hard, look at themselves and not just for admiring their gaudy jewellery. Speech is pretty pissed off about the passing of his good friend, conscious/message rap.
‘Standing At The Crossroads’ is Arrested Development’s 10th album and it sounds much more like a hip hop album than you might initially expect. In fact it sounds much more like a modern hip hop album than you would expect. There is one key distinction between this album and most modern hip hop though. This album is not completely consumed by the materialistic bullshit and insidious consumer culture that infuses most mainstream hip hop. That’s only to be expected though, right? Way back in 1992 we all knew that Speech would not be going down that road. It’s good to see that his comparative wilderness years haven’t pressured him into changing his mentality.
This album was mainly created during the band’s tours of Oceania and South East Asia and according to the accompanying booklet it was recorded and sequenced entirely on a MacBook. As good as the album is (and it is good) this shows from time to time. The synth textures sound a little plasticky at times. Thankfully the lyrical content and creativity won’t allow you to dwell on that. Whenever you become aware of something sounding a little cheap a new groove or musical idea will come along and make you focus on the good things that are going on here.
So, what are those good things? Well let’s start with the music. It’s a wonderfully vigorous and jaunty affair. The tone veers from soul to reggae to bhangra to pop to straight up hip hop and back with an effortless grace. All the while it maintains a sunny disposition that I can only envy (particularly in the morning). Have a listen to ‘U & Me = 3’ and try to prevent your head and toes from marking time. It’s just as difficult as the ‘eat three cream crackers in a minute’ shit. It’s pure sunny, head nodding, joy.
At times the musical style is used to further enhance and sell the the message of the song. ‘Soul Sister’ is a case in point. The song deals with the way in which the music industry (and in a wider context, society at large) uses women as a commodity in order to increase profits “Big pimpin’ ships, yachts and naked women. Put it on prime time dude dey make a killing”. I think in many ways you can apply this to the way a lot of female artists are marketed and that’s perhaps why, musically the chorus and refrain of this song sound like so much of the chart shit that’s out there.
If you cast your mind back you’ll recall that Arrested Development were never ones for following the well beaten path. Apparently nothing has changed. They’re still as musically adventurous as ever. Just listen to ‘Raga in Coolangatta’ (below) if you don’t believe me. It’s a hard beat topped with lush sitars and Tanpuri. It’s hard to do this without it sounding gimmicky or hackneyed but this track is excellent…and I’m not a fan of that sound, no matter what my heritage might dictate.
What’s nice to see is that Arrested Development seem to have really learned how to do the straight up hip hop. Check ‘My Reflection’ and tell me that that isn’t a little bit tasty. It’s also a bit tasty on the lyrical side. It’s a straight up attack on the lyrical focus of mainstream hip hop…despite the claims to the opposite. It’s probably as close as you’ll get to seeing (honest and overt) middle class ire on a hip hop album. Just examine the opening salvo “If Jay-Z is jehovah then I’m the anti-christ and if making mad doe (sic) is living, I’m the anti-life”. It goes on to question the legitimacy of the ghetto/strip club/drug dealing stories which dominate the hip hop world.
It’s so refreshing to hear somebody from within the hip hop world question the very same things that I find myself questioning. I grew up in a ROUGH area and having dragged myself out of that world I have no desire to celebrate it. I’d like to hear MCs talk about any of the other myriad stories which can be told. Speech tackles the very same thing by saying “You justify yo thug? I justify my nerdy.” and “They’d rather paint me as a passive hippie, lambast me like I’m clueless and my raps are trippy! Like satan they want to sift me, Professor Griff me – kick me out of the group of rhymers known for bringing ditty’s! A Pity!
Lyrically the album deals with a lot of things that are problems for all parts of society. ‘I’m A Fight Back Right Now’ is a story about learning lessons about the importance of the family unit to children “no wedding no womb. Two parents better than one. That’s the real truth”. ‘I Don’t Know Why I Ever Doubted’ is a lament for the death of message rap “Did you know message rap was huge at one point. Substance abuse then it went into withdrawal. From the truth”
You have to wonder if Arrested Development have fallen victim of the corporate push for idiotic gangsta rap. Listen to this album and you’ll wonder why they aren’t the ones sitting near the top of the hip hop table instead of the current heads of the family. I guess the subject matter, which is far more relevant to all of us than “shifting keys and making Gs” (I’m more about losing keys and catching Zs) isn’t considered to be commercially viable by some lazy A&R idiots.
All in all this is an excellent album. It’s intelligent lyricism and creatively constructed beats are a joy to behold. It’s safe to say that it’s not one for the fiddy fans but, really, who gives a fuck about those know-nothings anyhow? It might be a little too poppy (musically speaking) for some but give it a chance and you’ll see that that sugary pop sound is just disguising the bitter lyrical pill at the core of this album. Excellent stuff.