2002 — Spiritual People (iMusic)
So, do y’all remember Arrested Development? In that tiny window between old-skool hip-hop and gangsta-rap reaching the commercial mainstream, AD emerged and were for a very brief period a big thing. To be specific, that brief period was 1992. In that one year, AD ruled commercially and critically (in the white press, at least). Their first album came out in March of ‘92,; it sold big – 4 times platinum in the US – and reeled off three memorable singles that charted and were all over MTV. Late in the year, Spike Lee tapped them for a Malcolm X movie song, resulting in another class tune. At year’s end The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop critics’ poll (probably the most prestigious one in the US) named AD’s first album the best album released in the world that year. They won two Grammys. They were “Band of the Year” in Rolling Stone.
Yes, all that happened. It’s easy to forget now, because subsequently AD faded faster Stateside than hair-metal bands in Nirvana’s wake. What exactly happened to kill off Arrested Development? In two words: The Chronic. Dre’s big solo album arrived at the end of 1992 and suddenly hippie-like southerners singing about love, peace, and religion from an Afro-centric perspective were no longer fashionable (it didn’t help that the second album had no radio hits, of course).
Still, The Chronic doesn’t completely explain AD’s downfall, because (a) NWA and gangstas had actually been pretty popular for years already, and (b) diverse styles of hip-hop continued getting bigger and bigger until the late-90s – in fact, similarly “conscious” hip-hoppers like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Digable Planets had no trouble maintaining major-label deals and their sizable audiences. So, who knows why Arrested Development went down so quickly? Maybe they were simply too popular for their own good, from the first. Maybe they were never really a hip-hop group, and so became difficult to plug into radio formats.
Anyway, the main-man and main vocalist in AD was Speech (born: Todd Thomas), who is not really a southerner, but mainly grew up in Milwaukee, which is about the least hip-hop place you could come from in the US other than maybe Vermont. But he has lived in Georgia for many years now. Speech has an attractive voice with very clear articulation. His style is often a half-rap, half-pop croon. Speech went solo in 1996, and any chance of his commercial comeback ended when his first album was poorly received… except in Japan, where one of its singles took off and spent several weeks at #1. His second album was called Hoopla, and, though considerably better than the first one, did nothing to improve his sales figures at home, but again did the business here in Nippon, where I live.
As the new millennium arrived, Speech was mainly focused on the Japanese market, which eagerly awaited a new record. In 2000, Japan (and Japan only) got his third album, Spiritual People, with a track listing somewhat different from the one I’m reviewing....
Two years later, iMusic in North America finally got its act together and released a revised Spiritual People, with a new sleeve photo and everything. This is the definitive version of the record, and you really need it in your life. Not only is it the best thing Speech and/or Arrested Development ever did, it’s one of the best albums I’ve heard in the past twenty years.
Let’s get a couple of things out the way: First, this isn’t a hip-hop record. Speech still has some turntables scratchin’ and he raps a little here and there, but as to the style(s) and general vibe of this recording, think mid-1970s’ Stevie Wonder – but with “cleaner” instrumentation and less of a commitment to the blues. Second, Speech is a religious hippie. He is (or at least was, at the tail-end of the 1990s) a committed Christian in the International Churches of Christ, which clearly gives him a certain kind of inspiration, and he also sings a great deal about love and peace. I’m just mentioning these things now, lest they surprise you after you dip into this record.
But neither of those factors dominate the record’s moods, as most of the songs here, lyrically, are of the day-to-day personal variety and deal with the ups and downs of Speech’s marriage and everyday life. (He’s a fan of Joni Mitchell, you know.) Some songs are fast, others slow. In some, Speech sings about the music business or the temptation-laden world around him; in others, he sings about his personal love or his lingering jealousy. The overall mood is generally upbeat. As from Stevie Wonder’s best recordings, you can really feel a comforting warmth emanating from Spiritual People. Speech is clear and focused here, and he definitely has a message he wants to send out. Having said that, I also find, bubbling under the warm and southern-hippie-ish surface, a lot of insecurity and regret. Speech is clearly working through some relationship and career issues, but, most importantly, is trying hard to keep facing forward and be a spiritual person.
Things kick off with the endlessly listenable and impressively brilliant, “Brought To You By (Music & Life)”. Here is the absolutely perfect hip-hop / pop single. The tune has some big beats and some old-skool samples in its middle break, but is essential a soulful pop song. The remarkably catchy chorus – “People only want to shake now / Pacify ‘em, let ‘em shake now / Intoxicate ‘em, don’t let ‘em wake now / Living in a commercial break now / It ain’t about music and life.” – is just awesome. Later, he sings: “It’s the choice of a new generation / But I wasn’t always about that.” Indeed, Speech points the finger at himself here as much as at boy-bands and Britney Spears: “I used to go days without eating breakfast / To create a musical banquet / for the world to partake of it / But somewhere it got to be / just plain, old fast-food.” This (quite unnecessary) self-incrimination gives the track a non-judgmental and humanitarian feeling, which is nice. But man, what a killer tune! That hook is fresh and sweet. The production touches on this track are also outstanding. I’ve been listening to this song since 2002 and it just gets better with age, both lyrically and musically.
“Spiritual People”, is next. Speech switches gears into a strident, horn-driven jam that lands, aesthetically, somewhere between classic Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley’s “Exodus”. The track is only 2:48 in length, so doesn’t overstay its welcome, and, like all Speech’s recordings, has an open and uncluttered arrangement that is easy on the ears. It’s another winner, and a strong lyrical statement that deserves its status as the album’s title song. Even when the song is rousing, it still feels laid-back.
“The Simple Love of Life” has a title that gives away its mood. Speech is joined on vocals by the soulful Yvette Kleckley (Atlanta-based singer, I guess?), who sings not only in harmony but some leads as well (she also appears on other tracks on the album). This change of flavor is welcome, but the song’s melody is so good that it’s a winner regardless. This is a tune. Yvette lets loose at the end to great effect, and it’s all over in four minutes. It’s like a Four Tops hit from the mid-60s but with millennial-era production. You’re left wanting more, which is a good thing.
The fourth track, “A Traveler”, is the slowest so far. But it’s the most direct, lyrically, as Speech calls himself “a man without a map” who “can’t outrun myself”. It’s another nice tune, built on solid chords, and it builds to an exciting bridge near the end – the highlight of the track – where Speech sings of “a wife that has no ring” and “a son that don’t know my name”. Is he really singing about himself? Who knows? If he is, it’s interesting that even here, on the third LP after Arrested Development ended, Speech is still recovering from the experience. The song’s narrator wants to get out of the house and keep travelling, despite his unmet obligations at home. The line I like is: “The world is a circle / It ain’t never been flat / So I can only go so far before I find myself right back”.
Both “The Simple Love of Life” and “A Traveler” employ some well-arranged strings, indicative of the careful and measured production touches that really enhance this recording.
“Cruisin’ In My Super Beetle” is a bouncy, up-tempo tune that Speech and co. even filmed a video for (see it on his website). It’s essentially a guitar-pop song that you can tap your toe to, and it has a killer chorus you won’t be able to resist singing along with. The lyric refers to Speech’s realization that the pace of his life is too fast for his own good. Eshe and Wayland Bellamy sing on the track along with, and in counterpoint to, Speech, to fantastic effect. Bellamy sings the middle bit about smelling the trees and flowers and realizing “how much they mean to you”. There’s a masterful moment just after this, where he sings of the “the almighty God, above” spreading “his precious love”. The modest note Bellamy hits on the word “love” is surprising, to my ears, as I think a higher and more dramatic note would have been the norm. Anyway, it’s a great touch in the song. Such small touches as this really elevate Spiritual People way above any other Speech recording.
“It’s A Challenge For Me” is another good tune in which Speech sings of his matured love for his partner, and how it’s a challenge to stay focused on her and to stay, mentally, where he should be in his life. It’s yet another lyric that invokes Speech’s value of the slow and spiritual life over the material and fast-paced. It’s another sturdy-as-pillars track, with excellent production and built on solid harmony that pleases the ear. It’s not quite as tuneful as most tracks here, but that’s hardly a diss because this record is superb.
“Livin’ In The Real World” is another quite slow tune, and it’s the best of these. The theme of “the real world” is – you guessed it! – Speech’s need for the slow, peaceful everyday life. Again he remembers the old days (early 90s?) when “so much cash was running through our fingers / that we lost perspective on what it really means to live”. The chorus is as catchy as SARS, and soulful as hell. What a beautiful track. If you don’t enjoy this, you have problems.
“Brother Speech” seems to be one of the more enduring cuts here, as Speech went on to perform it live for years. It’s not one of my favorites, however – some nice raps and a cool message about the nature of speeches and teachers, but to me this sounds very early 1990s, and thus like an old AD track miscast into the 2000s.
“Jungle Man” is odd. First of all, Medusa (who?) and the aforementioned Yvette Kleckley sing most leads, and Speech doesn’t appear until well into the song… that is, except for the vocal-distorted refrain of: “You don’t want ‘dis Jungle Man!”, and “Uggghhh… Jungle Man!”. It’s cool, though, and the three vocalists and their raps all sound good. Certainly stands out. This is not a track indebted to classic Stevie Wonder.
They can’t all be classics. “Y-O” may be the only track on Spiritual People that I didn’t really need to hear again. Its raps are kind of silly, with Speech and co-writer T. Lucas (who?) trading puns and non-sequiturs. No harm done, I guess, but this track is the “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” of this LP.
I enjoy the bouncy “Ghetto Fabulous”, which is another track best described as guitar-pop. “I ain’t so legit / just ‘cause I write some hits”, sings Speech, sending up the clichéd late-90s hip-hop image we all remember too well. Another sunny, positive vibe envelopes you from this fine cut.
But never mind the guitar-pop – the most sonically surprising cut on Spiritual People is the out-of-left-field “Burning Rage Inside”, which has crunchy early-80s’ style stadium rock guitar… and a saucy, Clapton-esque electric-guitar solo! This could have ended badly (Speech covered The Beatles’ “Across the Universe” on his previous album, and it wasn’t pretty), and it’s surprising, for sure, to hear this kind of instrumentation over Speech’s voice, but the song is so damn good that it just railroads over any aesthetic challenges. The guitarists listed are Rick Ward (who appears on several tracks on Spiritual People) and Ike Williams, and I don’t know which one of them plays that solo, but it’s pretty cool. The song itself is a mid-tempo tale of jealousy from the perspective of a dude to his girl. They have a mutual male friend, you see, who gives her “looks and thangs”, and this drives Speech/the singer to an inner rage he can’t control. Speech sounds really pissed, too, like this is a lyric drawn from real-life. An awesome track.
“Always In Love” is one of the album’s three or four best tunes. I think what pushes this track over the top is not the notably frank lyrics (“I really love you / I want children with you”), nor even the melodic chorus, but rather that the song is quite up tempo. It has a brisk, shuffling rhythm, whereas it could easily have been a slow burner… but I think it works best this way. Good job, Speech. It’s just so easy on the ears. This’ll grab you immediately.
The record ends with the drowsy and charming “Late For My Own Funeral”, another winner. Speech recalls his mother telling him the words of the title back when he was a child. Today, you see, his lack of drive keeps him in bed, trying to wake up and keep up with his busy schedule. The track has an exciting middle part, but then cuts back to nothing but an acoustic guitar picking some notes, and you get the feeling the singer is crawling back under the blankets, to catch some Zs….
It’s a perfect way to cap the album, which, as noted, is lyrically obsessed with the out-of-control fast pace of life in the material world and a longing for peace, slowness, and simplicity.
The old adage that good-quality music will eventually find its audience… is proven wrong with Spiritual People, released on a small label in North America in 2002 and dying on the vine, heard by very few, praised publicly by many less. (At the time I write this, the LP doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry.) In the Western world, and in most of the rest of the globe, it’s not even a forgotten masterpiece – it’s a completely overlooked one that might have never existed for all most people would care.
That’s a pity, but mark me: Spiritual People is Speech’s masterpiece, and is one of the finest hip-hop / pop-soul albums ever recorded. Hell, just “Brought To You By (Music & Life)” alone is worth the price of admission. That track should have been a #1 hit that restored the man’s reputation Stateside, but wasn’t. And the rest of the record is just as superb. This record is seriously good and is as rave-worthy as any other recording on my site.
Rave on, Speech… You might never get your mainstream comeback, but you’ve done more than your share. Let’s hope the man knows his greatest record is truly appreciated by some aficionados.