Saturday, November 23, 2019


Recently, I listened to Arrested Development's debut album, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of... It was the first time in at least a decade, if not two. I'd picked up the CD back when I was still a twentysomething living in Chicago, and other than Tennessee, didn't really remember much about it, other than overall, I'd somewhat liked the music and that one track could be seen as calling for the violent overthrow of the United States government. (That had always been my go-to when people would argue that the United States had a draconian approach to freedom of speech.)

Now that I'm fiftysomething, I find myself listening much more carefully to the lyrics of songs than I used to, and that's given me a different understanding of 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of... The general theme of many of the tracks is something of a polemic on the proper way to be Black. It strikes me as something that was going around at the time, but I will admit to not recalling it all that well, as I had a tendency to tune such messages out. Even today, I find it somewhat tiresome, even when set to otherwise good music.

3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of... sets forth a vision of being Black that is self-consciously different from what it understands being White to entail. But it also places itself at odds with the burgeoning "gangsta" ethos that had been gaining traction over the previous five or so years, especially in the track People Everyday, which draws a sharp distinction between "Niggers" who, in the song, behave in a stereotypically "gangsta" fashion, and "Africans," who are Arrested Development's preferred mode of being Black.

Most of this went right past me when I was listening to the CD back in the 1990s. I liked the music, especially the track U, which had a fast and upbeat tempo, but didn't really connect with the broader message that the band was attempting to convey. Apparently, I wasn't the only one. Arrested Development's particular brand of alternative hip hop never seemed to catch on, although I understand that the broader form survives in Southern hip hop, a form that I'm not particularly acquainted with, although I've heard most of the singles that have made the charts. Now that I'm older, and perhaps more attentive to such things, the message is more clear.

In the end, it's another reminder of the difficulties of trying to drive broad social changes as a musical artist. In the same way that Prince and Janet Jackson had their attempts at activism effectively drowned out by the accolades for their prowess as musicians, the same thing happened to Arrested Development. The music was lauded, but the message appeared to go mostly unheard.

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