If you know anything about hip-hop, you'll know that the following sentence is not something you often hear rap fans admit to: The first hip-hop album I ever bought was 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life of ... by Arrested Development.
I was hardly alone in my love for this weird group of Afrocentric hippies from Atlanta who rapped about religion and homelessness, although it sometimes feels that way now. But in 1992, Arrested Development were one of those rare groups that were both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. 3 Years sold 4 million copies. It topped Village Voice's 1992 Pazz & Jop critics poll, beating out such now-classic albums as Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted and The Beastie Boys' Check Your Head (and would've beaten out Dr. Dre's The Chronic, which came out too late in ’92 to make the list — it ranked No. 6 on the 1993 poll). Arrested Development became the first rap group to win the Grammy for Best New Artist and the first to release an MTV Unplugged album.
And yet, over the years, admitting to other hip-hop fans that you like Arrested Development has somehow become the equivalent to showing up to the Pitchfork Music Festival in a Spin Doctors T-shirt. There's an assumption that you're either being ironic or confessing a childhood enthusiasm that you've since outgrown.
Among rap music's critics and cognoscenti, 3 Years has been almost completely written out of hip-hop history. Recent lists of the best albums of the ’90s from Pitchfork and Rolling Stone failed to include it. To be fair, both those lists were pretty rock-centric, but even when Complex published a list of the 90 best rap albums of the ’90s, 3 Years was nowhere to be found. You could make a strong case that no other album of the decade, in any genre, was both so universally acclaimed and so swiftly forgotten.
I'm not the first person to notice this or try to explain it. The A.V. Club's Nathan Rabin, in a great 2012 essay titled "In 1992 Arrested Development Looked Like the Future of Hip-Hop, but the Future Had Other Plans," attributes AD’s rapid decline to their overbearing earnestness, which is probably pretty accurate. Sanctimonious earnestness is one of the best ways to wear out your welcome with both fans and critics (see also: John Mellencamp), and Arrested Development's leader and emcee, Speech, possessed this quality in abundance, especially on the group's second album, Zingalamaduni, which just two years after 3 Years already sounded clumsily out of step with a culture that had moved on to Beck's "Loser" and Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Gin and Juice."
Although I stand by my love for Arrested Development's debut album, I'm the first to admit that parts of it have not aged well. Tracks with good intentions, such as the weirdly upbeat homeless anthem "Mr. Wendel," come off now as naive and condescending. But "Tennessee," a track that sounded like nothing else on the radio in 1992, still has the power to surprise, and the album's best deep cuts mix a dense, almost Bomb Squad–like production style with Southern flourishes — a ghostly gospel choir on "Fishin’ 4 Religion," a blues harmonica on "Mama's Always on Stage" — in a way no other rap group at the time had really done before.
It's likely that the production style developed by Speech and his turntablist sidekick, Headliner, influenced other ’90s Atlanta hip-hop groups like Goodie Mob and OutKast — but here again, Arrested Development have been written out of the South's rap history. Wikipedia even asserts that "OutKast became the first Southern artists to generate album sales like the powerhouse rappers on the East and West coasts" — a patently untrue statement, given that Big Boi and Andre 3000 didn't match 3 Years’ quadruple platinum sales until 2000's Stankonia. (The Wikipedia page on Southern hip-hop mentions Arrested Development only once, to acknowledge their Grammy win for Best Rap Performance for "Tennessee.")
Speech's overbearing earnestness and a lackluster second album aren't enough to explain this. Groups fall out of fashion all the time, but rarely are they so aggressively erased from the narrative of a genre they helped popularize and shape. So what else is going on here?
Ultimately, I think Arrested Development came to be stigmatized as a hip-hop group for people who didn't like hip-hop. And there was some truth to that assessment. It explains why I, a child of ’80s white suburban America, having previously failed to understand or appreciate what little hip-hop I was exposed to, connected so strongly with "Tennessee." It probably also explains why 3 Years topped the 1992 Pazz & Jop poll, at a time when most mainstream music critics were still searching for their own entry point into hip-hop.
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In some ways, Speech himself encouraged this image of Arrested Development as a kind of anti–hip-hop group. On AD's second single, "People Everyday," he depicted a confrontation between himself and "a group of brothers ... bugging out/Drinking the 40-ounce, going the nigga route." The scene quickly escalates from a seemingly real-life narrative into a metaphorical conflict between conscious hip-hop and gangsta rap, and even though Speech notes, "I ain't Ice Cube," he ultimately emerges victorious: "I had to take the brother out for being rude. ... That's the story, y'all, of a black man/Acting like a nigga and getting stomped by an African."
Although I still like "People Everyday" as a song — especially in its jazzy, guitar-laced "Metamorphosis Mix," which was left off 3 Years — I can see now how problematic Speech's reductive, oppositional view of gangsta rap was. The golden age of hip-hop that Arrested Development arrived in the middle of was a golden age precisely because of how gangsta and conscious rap coexisted in conversation with each other, offering contrasting sides of the African-American experience. Many of the best artists of the era, like 2Pac and Public Enemy, could seamlessly weave together qualities of both. Compared with a track like "Brenda's Got a Baby," Speech's parables and didacticism can ring a bit hollow.
Still, for all their flaws, I don't think Arrested Development get the credit they deserve, either on their own merits or as the gateway drug for thousands, if not millions, of dedicated hip-hop fans. In my case, if it hadn't been for Arrested Development, I never would have appreciated the jazz and hip-hop mashups of Us3's Hand on the Torch (another underrated album from that era) or found my way back to the earlier work of other so-called "alternative" hip-hop groups such as A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets and De La Soul. Even when I finally came around to appreciating Speech's gangsta nemeses and the laid-back menace of songs like "It Was a Good Day" and "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang," I can trace that appreciation back to the first time I kicked up the treble tone on "Tennessee."
Twenty-five years ago this month, a band of misfits from Georgia called Arrested Development released 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life of .... However you may feel about that album now, you can't deny that it opened up hip-hop to a much wider audience. I hope the genre's tastemakers and gatekeepers finally come back around to recognizing that accomplishment — and the fact that, however much tastes may have changed, 3 Years is still a much better record than most people realize.