'Zingalamaduni': A.D. swings without that arresting zing

June 14, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Nobody expects critics to make nice. Where others are obliged to be tactful and polite, we're allowed -- indeed, expected -- to snipe at all targets, no matter how benign or beloved. We can make caustic cracks about anything from Amy Grant's perkiness to Michael Bolton's hair. Hey, it's our job.

So why do I feel guilty about not liking the new Arrested Development album, "Zingalama- duni" (Chrysalis 29274, arriving in stores today)?

It's not as if there aren't things to like about the album. As with the group's Grammy-winning debut, "3 Years, 5 Months and TC Days in the Life Of . . . ," the music is tuneful, intelligent and uplifting. Likewise, the words are bristling with interesting ideas and social conscience, from the back-to-the-land polemic of "Ache'n for Acres" to the issues of identity addressed in "kneelin' at my altar."

Moreover, given the sex-drugs-and-guns sensationalism found on so many rap albums these days, Arrested Development's gentle demeanor and positive vision should themselves deserve a rave review. After all, it's got to be better for society at large to have people grooving along with the thoughtful cadences of "Shell" than leave them listening to Warren G and Nate Dogg boast in "Regulate" about having "16 in the clip and one in the hole." Right?

Well, sure, in the sense that Sunday school is better than shoot-'em-ups. But "Regulate," for all its ethical failings, does have one quality that "Zingalamaduni" on the whole lacks: dramatic tension.

What made "3 Years . . ." seem so revelatory at first was Arrested Development's communal spirit and canny blend of hip-hop and soul vocals. But what really gave the album its resonance was the range of emotions the group conveyed.

It wasn't Speech's earnest philosophizing that animated "People Everyday," but the passion beneath those words -- the fact that he got so angry at another's ignorant behavior that "It took three or four cops to pull me off of him." The drama of those conflicting emotions was what drew the listener in and what gave the song's amiable groove enough of an edge to be memorable and involving.

There's little of that this time around. True, "Mr. Landlord" does find Speech reacting to the plantation mind-set of an intrusive landlord by threatening "I'm not the one to get slapped on the cheek/Without my fist curling up to hit you back in yo teeth!" But such flashes of anger are more the exception than the rule, as Speech spends most of the album soul-searching and culture-seeking.

As a result, "Zingalamaduni" -- a word the group explains is Swahili for "beehive of culture" -- offers more buzz than sting. Much of that is admirable, of course, particularly when done as intelligently as "United Minds," a rap that reinforces its we're-all-in-this-together message with a chorus loop that draws on both African-American rhythms and Native American chanting. But the raps aren't always so insightful, as the muddle-headed naturalism of "In the Sunshine" (in which Speech seems to be arguing that spending time in the sunshine will cure all our ills) makes plain.

Besides, not all of A.D.'s utterances are as P.C. as they pretend. "Warm Sentiments," for example, finds Speech complaining that his girlfriend got an abortion without first asking him if they should have the baby. "Now, I understand U have your choice," he raps, but once he launches into his litany of complaints, it becomes obvious he really doesn't understand. Respecting a woman's choice on whether to have a baby is the same as respecting her right to say no to having sex; what the man wants is beside the point.

Yet Speech either doesn't get it or doesn't want to, because he takes the abortion as a personal insult -- "like I ain't no damn good/Like I can't raise a child the way a Nubian Man should." Never mind that she may simply have not wanted to be a mother at that particular moment.

Still, Arrested Development manages to put a happy face on even this bit of bullying, dressing it up in the same kind of low-key communal groove that powers the current single, "Ease My Mind." As such, it's hard not to admire the album's amiable mood and understated craftsmanship.

Liking it is another matter, though. Personally, I'd rather listen to Warren G's "Regulate," and if that makes me a bad person, hey -- nobody ever said critics had to be nice guys, either.


To hear excerpts of Arrested Development's second studio album, "Zingalamaduni," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6120 after you hear the greeting.

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