In my adult life, whenever I find myself in a spiritual wasteland (a frequent occurrence during this extended COVID19 season), I am prone to quote a line from Arrested Development classic Tennessee.
“Lord...But I am still thirsty”
Such is the enduring legacy of this early example of Hip-Hop fusion. Over 25 years later, a lament about systemic racial oppression is as relevant as ever in diverse contexts. The group’s first single stateside, it was written after frontman, Todd ‘Speech’ Thomas, lost his brother and grandmother within the space of a week. The southern state was where he had last seen them both.
For those growing up in the UK, our introduction to the world of AD was via their breakthrough top-10 hit, People Everyday. The Family Stone reference and feel-good ambiance might initially belie the content around a violent altercation between culturally divergent African-Americans. Other unforgettable tunes followed such as the haunting Mr Wendal, about an elderly rough-sleeper.
Arrested Development’s early 90s emergence was at the tail-end of the conscious, flower-power Hip-Hop era; pioneered by acts such as Queen Latifah, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. AD’s entrance on the scene also coincided with the rise of Tha Dogg Pound and West-Coast G-funk, although a world apart.
I recall having a conversation in my early secondary school days with a fellow melanated classmate. Seeing her as far more au fait on the music front, I was disappointed when she objected to Arrested Development being classified as rap.
‘They’re not really Hip-Hop’ she countered, with no malice ‘More like easy-listening’.
Speech and his heterogenous musical clan were never going to be edgy enough for purists, yet they were avant-garde in their own manner. The Georgia collective helped put Southern Hip-Hop on the map long before Outkast, Master P, Nelly and the like. Speech
’s rap/singing hybrid was unique at the time; preceding Bone, Thugs ’N’ Harmony. The only other artists arguably doing anything similar in the early 90s was The Pharcyde. And maybe The Fugees.
Admittedly, appreciation aside, my knowledge of AD’s back-catalogue is patchy at best. Apart from the odd notification of a Jazz Café performance or news of Speech’s shows in the Far East, I’ve been largely ignorant of his oeuvre post the mid-90s Marvin Gaye tribute.
Yet the Grammy-winning, dreadlocked maestro has been keeping busy for the best part of the past three decades. Last month he released his new solo project Expansion.
Beginning as a series of 2020 EP releases, it is a fully fledged album with fresh material and 2021 remixes. Opening track, A Different World, brings things right up to date with ref
erence to the madness taking place on 6 January at Capitol Hill and 400 years of racial injustice, by way of the titular Cosby Show 90-spin off.
A solidly enjoyable listen front to back, Speech stays true to the style for which he has made his name. The record is however, firmly situated in the 21st Century. With the exception of the of-its-time reggaeton Dance Alone, Expansion should hold up to scrutiny years from now.
The strong contemporary feel is largely thanks to fresh blood. You could be forgiven for mistaking this as a Speech presents…project. He doesn’t even feature on the artwork, so willing is he to give the floor to the next generation such as angel-voiced songstresses like Ke’Andra, (the defiant and atmospheric Do It) and young MCs such as Rambo (title-track, What Eva) and MRK SX (the superb Get Me). Not forgetting outstanding remixes courtesy of producer Configa; Seeing for the First Time the most notable of the lot.
Amidst the socio-politically conscious lyrics for which he’s known (we’d
have it no other way), Expansion often finds Speech in a wistful mood. For a number of reasons, the most attention-grabbing of his romantic fare is infectious dance-floor filler Virgin (feat. Chris Acosta, Twan Mack & Rambo). In his opening bars Speech rues,
'…Sometimes to make love, sex just gets in the way
Sometimes to have sex, love is burned at the stake…'
This ode to faith-based celibacy is somewhat gendered, with references to the 'high skirts and low morals' of the average female groupie, that this woman is not. As if the male artists are mere innocents. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine a man being commended as enthusiastically by his peers for a similar lifestyle choice. The boyfriend also overstates his willingness to respect her wishes…
'...We don’t have to go there if you don’t want to. In fact, I’m okay if you don’t want to…'.
Really? How good of you.
It’s nonetheless refreshing to hear a non-Gospel rap tune speak positively of abstinence.
Expansion also has room for self-deprecating humour. Funkin’ Great is the excellent, tongue-in-cheek homage to Speech’s on/off group, with a guest appearance from the old gang. This transatlantic collabo features some delightfully dexterous rhymes by UK wordsmith, Otis Mensah.
'I bet you thought Drake invented melody, but this precedes you...' he chides those ignorant of AD’s seminal contribution to a staple of modern Hip-Hop.
With Speech’s veteran status and its almost-every-track-could-be-a-single quality, Expansion is worthy of far more attention than it has garnered up to date. Still, the year is young.