Speech, The Vagabond (Bluhammock Music, 2006)

Speech first came into prominence over a decade ago as the lead vocalist of Arrested Development, a somewhat off-kilter hip hop band that were highly regarded by critics and enjoyed a fair amount of commercial success as well. In 1996 he embarked on a solo career, and The Vagabond is his fifth album. I was compelled to give the album a listen after hearing the brilliant single and opening track "Braided Hair," a song about life's twist and turns that features guest appearances from Neneh Cherry and the Native American vocal group Ulali. Unfortunately, nothing else on the rest of the album comes close to matching the first song's quality. Speech alternates between rapping and singing, but his singing only works in a hip-hop context; his attempts at soulful crooning just fall flat. His lyrics talk about love, family, spirituality, and his frustration with the negativity and preoccupation with "bling" that reflects the current state of popular rap and hip hop. His heart is certainly in the right place, and he at least deserves some credit for saying the right things, but I felt that the only moments beyond the opening song where the music did justice to the sentiments were the catchy rap "Esmerelda" and the closing song "Gone Away," a tribute to Speech's deceased brother. "Have Fun" has some superior bass guitar work from Victor Wooten, but is done in by an uninspired chorus. On "What You Give," Speech's criticisms of current hip hop come across as too self-righteous.

The Vagabond, ultimately, is the work of an artist who means well, but with one exception lacks the artistry to match the intentions. One song is really good, and a couple more are decent, but I found most of the album forgettable at best. In the age of downloading, it's tough to argue that one song can justify the purchase of a whole album.

Overall grade: C

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