On `Vagabond,' a Speech worth hearing

ON POPULAR MUSIC

November 10, 2005|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

We loved that song. While Mama was at work, my younger sister Reagan and I used to blast Arrested Development's "People Everyday." The hit was on the radio, like, every 10 minutes during the summer of '92.

As I cranked up the volume, I'd call out to Reagan, who was always in the bathroom mirror experimenting with her hair: "Girl, the jam's on!"

She'd fly into the living room - one side of her head done, the other side looking like she had been in a fight. And we'd hurriedly move the coffee table out of the way for our own Soul Train. I never could do the running man, but Reagan had the dance down, adding a little spin to it. She made me sick.

With their critically acclaimed triple-platinum debut, 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life of ..., Arrested Development was the darling of pop and urban radio that year. The progressive hip-hop collective fused soul, funk and blues with a pop overlay as they hit you with socially conscious lyrics. Speech, the group's visionary and chief songwriter, reflected a glowing, deeply spiritual worldview in the songs. When Arrested Development disbanded after the release of 1994's unfocused Zingalamaduni, Speech launched a vastly underrated solo career.

Since his 1996 self-titled debut, the man born Todd Thomas has put out four albums. His latest, released last week, is called The Vagabond. And it is among the best releases I've heard all year. Like everything Speech has done either as a solo artist or with Arrested Development, the record defies easy categorization. He does spoken word, he raps, he sings. The music veers from folk-pop to brassy '70s soul, from spacious pop experiments to groove-heavy blues-funk workouts. Speech is all over the place stylistically, yet The Vagabond flows smoothly.

"This album is very unique to me because it's very personal," says the artist, who's calling from Atlanta, where he's based. "It's about relationships with friends. I wrote songs about life in general and how we make mistakes and learn from them."

It's an open-hearted album, mostly sunny but not in a nauseating way. Even when Speech shoots flaming arrows at hypocritical rappers in "What You Give," he does so with sweetness: "It's not what you speakin'/It's how you live." The Vagabond is a reflection of an evolved 37-year-old man. Speech has been happily married for 10 years to his road manager, Yolanda. The two have a son, Jahi, and a daughter, Zoe. On the new album, the artist extols the security and beauty of married life.

"Especially with black artists, I hear so few songs about marriage and love and how incredible it is," Speech says. "Instead, you hear in R&B songs how incredible a one-night stand is. It's important to talk about love in another way. As a people, we need to have more dignity in who we are and what we put out there."

Since Arrested Development's heyday, Speech has made it his mission to use music to heal and validate. There's a deep appreciation for soul's past. But he never just rehashes old ideas. A multi-instrumentalist, Speech dips into many style bags but rarely overwhelms you with forced mash-ups. The Vagabond is driven by live instrumentation and a bright, assured musical eclecticism.

"I have people from London, India and Africa singing on the album," Speech says. "I call it The Vagabond because it explains what I am as a spirit. I love to go to other places and wander and see what's out there. The album goes in many directions."

While promoting his solo album, he's working on new material for Arrested Development. The band has reunited to record an album, which should be released next year. But AD never actually stopped touring. Fickle American pop junkies forgot the group after 1993, but for the last decade the band has steadily toured Europe. Arrested Development is especially well-received in Japan.

"The pop culture of America is really missing out on some of the most vibrant music being made now," Speech says. "I tell people to fish for more exciting music. A lot of it is happening overseas. We really need to open our minds and spirits."

While you wait for Arrested Development's American return, open yourself to The Vagabond. You may not want to leave the beautiful places it takes you.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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