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Shades of Grey - Click to view! Given what I know of Grammy-winning and platinum-selling singer/emcee Speech's history, I suppose the last thing I should expect from an album bearing his name is conventionality.

As the leader of the popular alt-rap group Arrested Development, Speech's lyrics were anything but gangsta, if a certain music database tells it right. They "reflected a positive, socially conscious, and deeply spiritual world-view," we're told, and this in a time when Dre had just dropped The Chronic, 2Pac lived as a legend, and Biggie was about to blow up. When hip-hop glorified the gutter, Speech defied the culture and used that formula to push AD to success that included their being named Rolling Stone's Band of the Year.

All of that to say this: Speech's latest solo offering is in style what his early lyrics would appear to have been in substance: nonconformist and genre-defying.

The Vagabond is at times a rap album, has elements of funk and soul infused throughout, and resembles Stevie Wonder's more experimental catalogue at others. The album's tenth cut ("Love") sounds as if it could have been cropped from the Love Below half of the latest Oukast album, yet "No One Like You" has a 70's era Motown vibe, and track No. 11 is a Lennon/McCartney cover. Clichéd as it currently is to say that an album is hard to define, that's the case here.

Speech gets things rolling with the mellow, catchy and thoughtfully metaphorical cut "Braided Hair," then transitions into "Scandal," a less impressive bit of elevator music that preaches against aspersion.

"Walking in the Sun" is one of The Vagabond's throwaway tracks, but is offset by the exceptional love song "Esmerelda," which will leave you wondering why dude doesn't rap all the time.

"Have Fun" follows, offering bland lyrics but an appealing, Q-Tip-like verbal approach that makes the song listenable, if not entirely enthralling.

Speech all but embarrasses himself on the inflammatory track "What You Give," mimicking DJ scratching with his own voice and throwing out critical rhymes that don't even begin to justify the puff-chested bravado that oozes forth. The former offence might be explained (and justifiably used) by budget issues that wouldn't allow for genuine sampling, but the latter is…well, kind of sad, really.

That said, the lone skit on the album, "Ferret lady," is genuinely hilarious and might bust your gut, and "Gone Away" closes the album with a touching ode to Speech's deceased brother. But The Vagabond lacks the polish it deserves, and only about half of its songs are worth listening to more than once.

Best thing to do here is go to iTunes or someplace similar and not bother with the disposable cuts. "Esmerelda" will please hip-hop headz, and "Braided Hair," "No One Like You," "Across the Universe" and other positive moments mentioned above might be worth your time. But the rest will really only appeal to diehard fans.
- Ben Forrest
January 2005
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