Happy Anniversary to En Vogues debut LP Born to Sing, originally released April 3, 1990.
Though my family and I are now firmly rooted on the east coast in Brooklyn, I will forever be passionately loyal to my beloved hometown of Oakland, CA. Admittedly, Oakland has a well-publicized history of socioeconomic and infrastructure-related challenges, which regrettably dominates public perception and often obscures all that is great about the city. There is indeed much to love about Oakland, and my pride for the city commands a permanent place in my heart and always will, for so many reasons. Its unparalleled cultural diversity, arguably rivaled only by my current stomping grounds. Its storied history of political liberalism and activism. Its unique juxtaposition of urban and rural landscapes. The soon-to-be crowned NBA champion Golden State Warriors (fingers crossed). And most relevant to this column, its rich, soulful, and frequently underappreciated musical heritage.
Tower of Power, The Pointer Sisters, Sheila E., Too $hort, Tony! Toni! Tone! and Raphael Saadiq, Digital Underground, and the Hieroglyphics collective are among the more notable artists to emerge from the Oakland scene and garner international acclaim. Another act that belongs within this rarified group of influential Oakland-bred artists is En Vogue, as they reinvented and revitalized the contemporary female R&B group in the early 1990s. Together, the original quartet comprised of Terry Ellis, Cindy Herron, Maxine Jones, and Dawn Robinson became the de facto archetype by which similar groups modeled and measured themselves for many years after.
The brainchild of production duo Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy (also known as Fmob), En Vogue was assembled as the heir apparents to the female soul groups that ascended to prominence during the 1950s and 1960s. They were the modern-day Supremes in many respects, albeit minus a member with the indisputable megastar charisma of Diana Ross, who inspired Motown founder Berry Gordy to rebrand the group as Diana Ross & The Supremes in 1967. In fact, and at least throughout the first few years of their career before intra-band tensions surfaced, En Vogue very much appeared to embody balance and egalitarianism in working form. By Foster & McElroys calculated design, all four women were remarkably talented vocalists in their own right, meaning that no one group member was overshadowed on record or during live performances. Destinys Child, they were not, in other words.
Sure, the foursome possessed undeniable sex appeal, but the groups most salient qualities were the substance, sophistication, and sense of self-empowerment they represented through their music, all of which were first manifested on their debut LP, Born to Sing. Arguably one of the most appropriate album titles ever, Born to Sing was the perfect showcase for their extraordinary vocal skills and next-level harmonies, complemented by flawless production and execution. Nowhere was this more perfectly realized than on the albums instantly memorable lead single, Hold On. The track opens with Ellis minute-long, a capella reinterpretation of Whos Lovin You, the Smokey Robinson-penned classic made famous by The Jackson 5 in 1969. Ellis powerful, goosebump-inducing intro supported by her three counterparts sweet harmonies was all most of us needed to hear to be hooked. And then just past the one minute mark, the song changes course, segueing into the bouncy, head-nodding groove that rides along James Browns The Payback, one of the most sampled songs in hip-hop history. Indeed, Hold On was one helluva thrilling way to be introduced to this new group that no one had ever heard before.
I recall first hearing Hold On on my local radio station, KMEL, sometime in early 1990 and thinking that it was one of the catchiest songs Id ever heard, the epitome of soul-pop perfection. Not surprisingly, Hold On became an airplay beast, and in an effort to capitalize on the songs momentum, the full-length Born to Sing was unveiled a short time later. An addictive new jack swing confection that fuses classic soul with hip-hop beats and familiar samples, the album features meticulously crafted songs perfectly suited for crossover appeal, a la Hold On. Follow-up singles Lies and You Dont Have to Worry follow in the same funky vein as Hold On, while Strange, Time Goes On, and Luv Lines are also solid up-tempo tracks that could have justifiably been released as singles as well. And while the ballads peppered throughout the album reinforce the groups vocal versatility and commitment to a more balanced song set, only Dont Go and Part of Me stand out as above-average fare, with Just Cant Stay Away and Waitin on You the albums lone and forgivable mediocre tunes. With a few exceptions here and there, subsequent albums reinforced that the groups strong suit was definitely their harder-hitting, more danceable fare, as opposed to their slower serenades.
As I revisited Born to Sing and listened to the album in full once again for purposes of this piece, it occurred to me that En Vogue would represent quite the anomaly, if, hypothetically speaking, they were to make an album like this today in 2015. Not so much because their sound would be considered dated by todays standards. But rather, because R&B groups and particularly, female-fronted R&B groups have become akin to endangered species, essentially disappearing in the past 10 to 15 years. In these groups absence, hyper-stylized, singled-named solo artists like Beyoncé and Rihanna have come to dominate airplay and record sales, and the trend shows no signs of abating anytime soon.
In her 2011 article Who Killed the R&B Group? published via The Root, Akoto Ofori-Atta contends that the modern-day resurgence of a once-prominent group like En Vogue would be damn near impossible because R&B groups and duos male and female have gone the way of the compact disc. The insinuation being that these groups have been in major commercial free fall for several years now. Ofori-Atta lays out a thorough assessment of why this might be, outlining several possible reasons that may explain the demise of the R&B group as we once knew it. These factors include the traditional inevitability of groups dissolving for greener solo pastures, increased music industry constriction and fiscal accountability that favors investment in solo artists, social media being perfectly designed to fuel the narcissism of the solo singer, the downfall of 90s boy bands stigmatizing pop groups across the board in the eyes of music consumers, and finally, the cyclical nature of music.