"Where?," the new single from middle-aged hip-hop group Arrested Development, doesn't sound particularly modern. Like much of the group's output over the last decade, it feels like it could fit comfortably on their multiplatinum debut, both in terms of its warm, sample-heavy collage of jazz, soul, and gospel sounds and its unabashed, socially conscious earnestness.
Perhaps even more telling is the cover art, which features a wide-cut shot of the current iteration of the group sitting in a church pew of a small, weathered house of worship, looking upward.
While the Afrocentric impulses and religious sentiments are not always central to the thematic content of the group, their spirit and perseverance seems driven by higher ideals and a higher calling. Despite selling over four million copies of 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of, which won multiple Grammys and topped the Village Voice's Pazz and Jop poll in 1992, Arrested Development quickly became sidelined by both commercial hip-hop and the critical zeitgeist. Their sophomore album Zingalamaduni tanked spectacularly in 1994, leading to the acrimony and the dissolution of the group a couple of years later.
Since 2000, though, Todd Thomas (a.k.a. "Speech"), the leader of the group who both raps and handles much of the production work, has led a revitalized Arrested Development (notably without founding member and turntablist Timothy Barnwell, who performs under the name "Headliner") through new albums and tours with a joyful tenacity in the face of the relative indifference of the mainstream.
"We're a very passionate group of people and we still have a lot of ideas and inspirations. So we keep on making music, even when sometimes it makes no sense to do it," Speech admits. "I think it's just we're creative spirits that really believe in the the medium of creativity. And there's also a lot of issues that we feel compelled to talk about."
Speech makes no bones about the difficulties of the group chartering its own course after its massive early success, pointing to an industry that, he argues, is structured against the positive, life-affirming vision of their music.
"We're pushed to the side unfairly and maybe even sinisterly from an industry and a corporate structure that really just would rather not have messages in music, or [at least] deeper messages in music," he contends. "We've been pushed aside by gangsta hip-hop, hip-hop about violence within the black community, or degrading women."
Speech points to the incredible popularity of fellow Atlanta artists Migos and Cardi B specifically as examples of what he sees as a deleterious turn.
"These artists are talking about strip clubs, talking about gunplay in shooting each other, and talking about a lot of other [harmful] things. You hear a lot about materialism, gross materialism, but not a lot of reactions to police brutality, not a lot of reactions to some of the statements the president has been making against people of color," he says. "It creates a culture where responding to agitation with guns becomes normal; [the music] normalizes it. It makes selling drugs glamorous as if it's something that's just necessary to survive, as opposed to giving people other options and another reality. It all enhances the prison system. It's a pretty sinister reality."
And it's something you have to admire about Arrested Development — they stick to their proverbial guns, creating music that can occasionally come across as preachy in its socially conscious sanctimony and specific vision of black uplift. Speech in particular has been politically active for years and readily speaks out on the need for criminal justice reform. He's recently completed 16 Bars, a documentary about a prison rehabilitation program he's been heading that helps inmates by engaging them in music production. It recently premiered at the DocLands Film Festival in California.
"I worked for 10 days with these inmates on music," he explains. "What came through all of that expression, the music, was the complexities of these inmates' lives."
Be wary of tagging the group with "respectability politics" though — Speech bristles at the very idea of the term.
"It's absolutely a stupid concept," he says flatly. "People that use this term respectability politics wrongly assumed that I'm saying a lyric in order to make white people accept us. I could care less about white people accepting us — I care about us being respectable to ourselves and amongst ourselves. That has nothing to do with what others are saying about us. It's not like I don't want someone to see our dirt; I want us to clean the dirt so that we can rise up."
As for the music, well, Arrested Development has more of that on the way too. And the group continues to be a live draw thanks to nostalgia, yes, but also by simply speaking their truth. Fans say theirs is the best live show around. Speech says, "I know that sounds arrogant coming from me, but I'm just telling the truth."