Arrested Development's 1992 debut, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of ..., forged an affinity with African American cultural history. It wasn't a safe commercial bet, but the album became popular by revealing the essence of that history in contemporary regionalism ("Tennessee"), sexual politics ("Natural," "People Everyday") and social outlook ("Mr. Wendal").
Now the group has chosen Zingalamaduni, a teasing Africanesque title for its follow-up to test whether its fashionable Afrocentricity is more than just another rock & roll trend. It all depends on how much finger snapping and head bobbing the new songs inspire, but these even more forthright tracks — "Kneelin' at My Altar," "United Minds," "Africa's Inside Me," "Pride" — prove the seriousness of AD's commitment. Following a year of gangsta-rap decadence, AD are involved in the redemption of black minds, grass-roots politics and, not incidentally, pop music itself.
This second round of back-to-basics song arrangements hides lead rapper Speech's studio savvy behind the appearance of unsophisticated rootsiness. All hip-hop makes a priority of the spoken word, but AD connect rap's up-to-the-minute urban mode to the classical rural style of the blues tradition.
This method is what made "Tennessee" refreshing. While borrowing a sample from Prince's "Alphabet St.," its lyrics and style reached back past Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" all the way to Leadbelly as part of a black-pop continuum. "In the Sunshine" enacts a similar reclamation on Zingalamaduni. Featuring Speech's finest vocal performance, "Sunshine" taps casual, singsong optimism, redolent of Southern nostalgia, so that Speech and his mixed-gender crew can sing determinedly about utopia. The tune isn't naive, it's an implicit political critique. Speech's sweet, soulful croon slips in and out of recitative, once again linking his group to its pop heritage. These are indeed the children of Sly Stone and Gil Scott-Heron, the Southern siblings of De La Soul. Arrested Development ecstatically combine group dynamics and solo rebel spirit.
It's by revivifying these common musical virtues that AD evoke Afrocentricity, while most rappers stick to the sonic glories of urban tension and contemporary stress. AD's roots sound serves Speech's intention to defeat '90s alienation. Zingalamaduni is a fun, flight-of-fancy word, but the album sounds firmly grounded — literally: Land is one of the main motifs (unity is the other). Land embodies Speech's belief in belonging, the importance of a sense of place — both fostering a proud identity. There's no denying these serious hip-hop concerns, and AD go a long way toward making such sociology exciting.
On "Mister Landlord," the slamming track that leads off the album's more personal second half, Speech argues with a landlord, giving the voice of the dispossessed his own thoughtful, clenched-teeth charm. No hardcore rapper has made a point more clearly than Speech does in this track, machismo in check, blowing righteousness about the ethics of property and respect: "Mister landlord, step off my yard!" That chant, taken up by the group, reverses the power positions of social inequality. Speech's invective enlarges to address more than the bloodsuckers to whom one writes a monthly check. It's an ideologue's song with the virtue of subtlety, of intensely felt politics made universal.
The next song, "Warm Sentiments," cuts an even more deeply personal political groove. Dramatizing the charged emotions that swirl around an abortion, the song shows how close to the heart are rap's politics. "Sentiments" is about the difficulty of male responsibility; the sensual rhythm and confessional declaiming recall L.L. Cool J's romantic honesty. No public-service announcement, "Sentiments" expands the male female counterpoint to capture a complex human discourse. The infant's cry at the end suggests a future people share, a future they make together.
The key to AD's successful deployment of Afrocentric ethics lies in the simplicity of unadorned vocals and percussive rhythm. On "Fountain of Youth" the boxy drum supports a hype New Jack Swing female vocal; the building chords of "Pride" carry a floating, divalike alto; and "Achen' for Acres" is a schoolyard cheer. Speech takes the lead on all these tracks, but like Sly Stone, he's not afraid to share the mike, never too shy (or too dogmatic) to make his feelings fun and sexy.
Zingalamaduni ends with one of AD's best tracks, "Praisin' U," which characteristically uses terms of worship and faithfulness the way a lover uses the language of seduction. It's an Afrocentric vibe but uncannily sexy and daring: The song's subject changes, beat by beat, from divine to human, from an abstraction to the very person listening to the record.
It's risky for Speech to assume that one album's chart success has translated into a political alliance. But if people really heard "Tennessee," his assumption may be correct. Zingalamaduni proves that Speech still has a gift for the swinging rhythms and decent expressions that get past the differences that divide the pop audience.