This is post #4 in a 10-post series. If you missed the first three posts and would like to read them, here they are:
OK, moving on…
I intentionally omitted a key detail from my He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper post. Another important album in my musical development arrived at nearly the exact same time. That was Don’t Be Cruel by the infamous Bobby Brown. Don’t Be Cruel was my introduction to R&B/new jack swing. As much as I loved Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, I had equal love for Bobby at the time. I wasn’t familiar with his role in New Edition because we didn’t hear them in Green Bay. I think “Mr. Telephone Man” made its way here briefly but it came and went quickly. New Edition, The Time, Shalamar, Jermaine Stewart, Ready For the World, The Jets. All R&B artists/groups that had their songs briefly appear and quickly disappear from Casey Kasem’s Top 40 in the 80’s and I never heard from them again.
It’s too bad because I hear some of New Edition’s stuff now – especially Heart Break a.k.a. “The one with Johnny Gill after Bobby left” – and think I really would’ve liked that back in the day. We did, however, get plenty of Bobby Brown in 1989. “My Prerogative” was everywhere. “Every Little Step” was a staple at the junior high dances, but “On Our Own” from the Ghostbusters 2 soundtrack was the real jam. Plus, “Roni” is still an all time slow jam. Bobby Brown opened a door to R&B that led me to Al B. Sure and Guy. Why them? Because they were nominated for Grammys or American Music Awards and I was like, “Never heard of them. I’ll have listen to them.” Guy was another one of my favorites for a few years. JAAAAAAM! OOOOOHH JAAAAAM!
The game changed again in 1990 when Bell Biv DeVoe released Poison. They took what Bobby Brown started and improved on it. They may have also unknowingly contributed to the end of R&B music for a long time, but I’ll get back to that in a minute. Bell Biv DeVoe was cool because Ricky Bell could really sing and Ronnie Devoe and Michael Bivins could rap. They weren’t Rakim by any stretch, but they were passable and perfect for what they were doing. Bobby Brown and BBD took the R&B genre that had been mostly dormant throughout the 80’s – at least in top 40/pop music – and brought it back to life for a new generation by adding elements of hip hop to it.
Fortunately for a kid like me starving for more music that sounded like BBD, one of their members – Michael Bivins – was as passionate about mentoring and producing young R&B groups as he was about performing. In 1991 Biv introduced Philadelphia quartet Boyz II Men and their debut single “Motownphilly”. I can’t exaggerate how often I listened to that song in the summer of ’91. One night at my buddy Hoot’s house we just put it on repeat and listened to it for hours.
Fun tangent: Boyz II Men went to high school in Philly with Questlove and Tariq from The Roots. Both make appearances in the “Motownphilly” video. I can’t spot Tariq, but a young Questlove is easy to spot playing drums outside the bathroom stall where Michael Bivins is inexplicably on a toilet reading a paper and rapping while he’s presumably taking a shit in the middle of a party.
Anyway, Boyz II Men added something to the landscape that had been missing: harmony. To this day BIIM have some of the most beautiful harmonies ever recorded in popular music. They’re incredibly talented, but their voices also blend together perfectly. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I love that group and still listen to their music. Even the later albums when people seemed to stop paying attention. However, if there’s a flaw it’s that they lack any kind of edge. Their music is safe. That’s not necessarily bad. They were the kind of guys that would make moms say, “They seem like such nice, clean cut boys.” I admire and respect it, but I like some nasty in my music. I’m aware of the hypocrisy since I have very little nasty myself, but somewhere deep in my subconscious there’s an explanation why I gravitate toward music like Prince and Tupac.
Enter Jodeci. To be honest, I truly have no idea how or where I heard about Jodeci. Here’s what I recall: In the summer of 1992 my high school band took a trip to Colorado. That meant an overnight bus trip and plenty of time to listen to music and stare out the window late at night. I went on that trip armed with two new tapes that I have no recollection of discovering or buying. Forever My Lady by Jodeci and Born into the 90’s by R. Kelly and Public Announcement. They didn’t play either them on WIXX or even MTV as I recall, so I truly don’t have a clue how those two tapes ended up in my possession. I just know I spent most of the trip out to Colorado with those two tapes in the Walkman. I gravitated toward Jodeci. I listened to Forever My Lady the entire way home. Don’t get me wrong, I dug R. Kelly, but this was not a difficult choice for me. Jodeci was the perfect combination of Boyz II Men’s talent and harmonies along with BBD’s nastiness.
What’s amazing about Jodeci’s vocals is that – as far as I can tell – only two of them can really sing. K-Ci and JoJo are brothers (literally) who can sing beautifully, but strangely have completely different voices. JoJo hits the high notes with his perfectly clear voice. K-Ci always sounded like he smoked a carton of cigarettes and gargled a cup of gravel before every take. Combine the two of them with Devante and Dalvin and somehow the four of them just complimented each other beautifully. Add Devante’s production and you had the perfect 90s R&B group.
Next, let me defend the slow jam. I’m not ashamed to confess that I still love a good slow jam. When the sun sets and a long day comes to an end I don’t exactly want to sit around my house listening to some loud shit. I want to grab a drink and chill. Nowadays for me that usually means something a bit more refined like some D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Miles Davis, or Grant Green. However, if I want to bring back the good old days, give me Side A of Forever My Lady. A murderer’s row of slow jams. Yes, I’m aware 100% of it is about getting in some girl’s panties. I’m good with it. “Come and Talk to Me” melts me every time I hear it. Same can be said for “Stay” and “Forever My Lady” and the other two songs that I honestly can’t remember the name of because I don’t usually look at song titles. I listen to them. They’re “Track 4” and “Track 5” to me and they’re fucking good. The one about the girl and the other one about the girl. I don’t need names to enjoy them.
As any influential album does, “Forever My Lady” led to an entire decade of hip hop-influenced R&B for me. Jodeci blazed the trail for me to find Shai, Blackstreet, 112, and Jagged Edge to name a few. Jodeci’s reign as kings of R&B was short as they released three albums over the span of four years, then vanished. K-Ci and JoJo made more music together, but it wasn’t the same to me. It didn’t take long for the marriage of hip hop and R&B to get old to me. At some point it all started sounding the same and for some reason R&B groups gave way to solo artists. I still dig people like Usher, Ginuwine, and Aaliyah, but the four-part harmonies – and for that matter a lot of the melodies – that I used to hear in R&B became auto-tune and singer/rappers who can neither sing nor rap particularly well. Like I said earlier, the genre was reinvigorated when Bobby Brown and BBD injected hip hop in to it, but after a few years imitators created a hybrid that I find far less compelling. I’ll end the old guy “get off my lawn” rant now.
One list thing: “Forever My Lady” is now my white whale. I can’t find the vinyl anywhere. No idea how it hasn’t been reissued on vinyl in 30 years. Will someone get on that, please? OK, I’m done.
Now that it’s 1992 and I’ve established that my musical taste is mostly confined to hip hop and R&B it’s time to branch out. An unlikely addition to the list from 1954 is next.