Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Seven years, three months, and 19 days after launching an album so overrated he may never be taken seriously again, the big brain and lead voice of Arrested Development has sidled into the marketplace bearing Hoopla. This is not Speech's solo debut. There was an eponymous one you missed in 1996--an effort a shade edgier than AD's best-selling, poll-topping 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of . . . even if it didn't have a "Tennessee" on it. Hoopla doesn't have a "Tennessee" on it either, although TVT hopes "The Hey Song" comes close. It does have Speech unfolding his homespun and testifying for Jesus and bidding to change his nom de biz to Song. And whaddaya know? It's not bad at all.

In a world already riddled with middle-class hip-hoppers by association true to an old school with prefects named Marvin, Stevie, and Sly, Speech's strategy is to keep the beats simple and sing as sweet as he can. His talky midrange is ingratiating, his falsetto surprisingly keen, and when he's not whining about radio or essaying a six-minute "Redemption Song" he sounds fine. His secret is elementary. Where so many nuevo soul men concentrate on the vocal gymnastics and studio layering they know and love, Speech makes like the folkie he once would have been and writes catchy ditties. With hooks, to be sure: piano vamp here, sampledelic vroom there, baby coo so cute he gets away with it. "Slave of It All" takes an already well-decorated guitar strum electric when it revs into gear, and "The Hey Song"'s selling point is the kind of femme chorus that's irresistible until you can't stand it anymore. The overall effect is pleasant, nothing more. But when you make as big a deal of your unpretentiousness as Speech, pleasant is a virtue.

Spin, Aug. 1999