It’s been 20 years, five months and six days since Arrested Development released 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of…, and though they’ve put out six albums in the interim, their debut casts a long shadow. All these years later, it stands as the only record to be endorsed by mainstream rap radio programmers, critics, Grammy voters, black intellectuals, alt-rockers and the family-values crowd. To mark its 20th anniversary, Arrested Development’s making it the focus of their current tour, which stops at World Café Live at the Queen on Sept. 24.
But they’re also still grappling with their legacy on their new Standing at the Crossroads (self-released). “Did you know message rap was huge at one point?” Speech asks on “I Don’t Know Why I Ever Doubted.” He’s not just nostalgic; he’s pissed. He continues the charge on “My Reflection”: “If Jay-Z is Jehovah, I’m the Antichrist/ And if making mad dough is living, I’m the anti-life,” Speech argues, making a case for keeping it real through honest work, talent and prayer. You’ll never sign off on everything AD’s pushing, but they give you something to think about.
It’s always been that way; 3 Years moved a lot of people — it sold more than 4 million copies in its first three years — and even message-rap messiahs can’t appeal to as many constituencies as AD did without part of that message getting lost. If “Tennessee” was an unlikely but irresistible first single, with its back-to-the-land ethos and picnic pacing, “People Everyday” proved a funky follow-up by reinventing Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” as a black hippie’s revenge fantasy. By the time the group landed its third Top 10 single with “Mr. Wendal,” which measures a homeless man against the society that disregards him, it seemed like they’d put hip-hop on a new path. So much for that.
Despite all the extended-family voices throughout the record, this is one man’s vision: pro-God but skeptical of the church, pro-woman but dead-set against abortion, pro-monogamy but stung by rejection. Speech may speechify about unity, but he’s true to himself above all.That’s what makes AD worth listening to, even if — especially if — your path has led you somewhere else.