Arrested Development says it doesn’t care about fame or fortune. Its members, who come from the sleepy rural South, talk both in person and in their music about the condition of black people and the betterment of the whole human race. Of course, none of that talk stopped the group from becoming the hottest rap sensation in years, selling 3 million copies of its first album, 1992’s 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of…, and becoming the first rap act ever honored with a Grammy for Best New Artist.
You’d think even Arrested Development might wonder if it can climb that high again, especially since its lofty thinking only raises the stakes. But judging from its second studio album, Zingalamaduni, there’s nothing to worry about. Even though the group’s strikingly easygoing sound is now familiar, and the new record doesn’t offer any song with the pop appeal of their first hit, ”Tennessee,” Zingalamaduni is as appealing — and artistically deep — as any pop album you’re likely to hear.
Zingalamaduni (Swahili for ”beehive of culture”) is structured as a broadcast on the imaginary radio station WMFW (”We Must Fight and Win”). Right from the start, we get a double dose of Arrested Development’s politics, as we’re told to get ready for ”relentless struggle” and urged to join in the old ’60s chant ”power to the people.” But along with exhortations come moments of amazing beauty, like the dusty chant at the beginning of ”Pride.” This ethnic feel is something new for the group; it’s touchingly evocative, in effect taking black rural life back to its African roots.
What’s most remarkable about the record, though, was also true of 3 Years. Arrested Development doesn’t just talk about communal liberation; it brings the concept to life with exhilarating music. The vivid riffs on Zingalamaduni jump up and grab your attention, but they’re also informal, as if the group had overheard them on the street. During ”In the Sunshine,” you’d swear you were hearing drummers improvise in a city park. And the start of ”Africa’s Inside Me” sounds like a homeboy noodling happily on a keyboard his family bought him a week ago.
Granted, the group’s rapper, Speech, and DJ, Headliner, are earnest and sweet, yet they can’t match the supple flow of the likes of Heavy D, and the women in this posse are too rarely heard from. And, apart from dated black- power cliches, it’s hard to know what kind of ”struggle” Arrested Development supports. (”Ache’n for Acres” urges black people to buy land, which, given today’s economy, seems naive.) But there’s no point getting carried away with negatives. Zingalamaduni is a pop album, not a political tract. It’s a worthy successor to 3 Years — which means it’s very nearly in a class by itself. A