In 1993, Arrested Development was the angel on hip-hop’s shoulder; conscious rap at its most extreme — telling children to throw away their toys and play with mother Earth, writing passionate odes to the institution of marriage, and speaking to god the way you would a friend. The same month that Dr. Dre’s giddily nihilistic Chronic was peaking on Billboard, MC Speech and his crew of Atlanta peacethrowers were tearing up the singles chart with a benevolent ode to helping the homeless. Arrested Development were earthy, Afrocentric, almost comically laidback, hopelessly optimistic, unwaveringly positive, dreads-and-all bohemian. Naturally it was an instant smash among rock critics, most of whom prophesized a do-gooder hip-hop future that never exactly materialized.
But don’t focus on what 3 Years isn’t, because it still draws a perfect, head-knockingly funky connective line between the Last Poets and Stankonia-era OutKast — a ’90s hip-hop parallel to rock’s alternative nation, albeit one informed by an unapologetic pop streak, as derived from godfathers of crossover appeal like Sly Stone, Prince, and Earth, Wind & Fire (all dutifully sampled within). The cartoonish scratching of DJ Headliner evokes the dizzy best of De La Soul, “Fishing 4 Religion” is as chaotic as the Bomb Squad’s work on Ice Cube’s debut, and the dubby, scratchy weirdness of “Washed Away” is a wild forebear to the acclaimed tangents of Shabazz Palaces. 3 Years is of the rare albums overrated upon release and dangerously underrated in its old age.