In his recent Paris Review piece Alone Together, Dan Piepenbring argues that todays paucity of R&B groups has engendered a conspicuous dearth of vocal harmonies, once a stylistic staple of soul music:
What (R&B) groups foregroundedand whats noticeably lacking in present-day R&Bwere vocal harmonies. Obviously the Top 40 is still loaded with backup singers; I dont mean to say that vocal harmony has gone extinct. But a certain kind of performance has gone missing from the charts, a choral style for trios, quartets, or quintets, where the harmony was just as essential as the melody.
Its a fair observation that the R&B groups of yesteryear that valued the importance of harmony and vocal proficiency have been replaced by contemporary solo artists who, for the most part, tend to prioritize image and reputation over vocal prowess. And listening to En Vogues Born to Sing offers a harrowing reminder of just how far the cult of personality has penetrated the genre, and just how obsolete group-based harmonies have become.
By all measures, Born to Sing was a successful debut album that not only propelled its creators careers forward, but also helped to advance the new jack swing movement as a whole. Two years later, En Vogue experienced their critical and commercial peak with their follow-up 1992 LP, the multi-platinum Funky Divas, which proved a markedly more mature and polished affair than its predecessor. Through ubiquitous, MTV-blessed singles like My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It), Free Your Mind, and their cover of Aretha Franklins Giving Him Something He Can Feel, the group graduated from promising newcomers to proven global phenomenon.
Since the glory days of Funky Divas, however, En Vogues career has sadly been a tumultuous one, undermined by constant infighting, contractual conflicts, ever-changing lineups, and short-lived reunion and reconciliation attempts. The bands persistent state of flux and instability has resulted in recording output that has proven sporadic, to say the least. Excluding a handful of greatest hits compilations and holiday-themed collections, En Vogue has released only three full-length studio albums during the 22 years since Funky Divas, the most recent 2004s Soul Flower appearing eleven years ago. Nevertheless, they have still bestowed some stellar music upon us along the way, including 1993s Runaway Love EP and 1997s platinum-certified EV3 album. Also deserving of praise are Ellis underrated 1995 solo album Southern Gal and Robinsons soulful contributions to the first and only album released by Lucy Pearl, the ephemeral late-90s super-trio she helped develop with fellow Oakland native Saadiq and A Tribe Called Quest producer extraordinaire Ali Shaheed Muhammad.
While the epilogue of En Vogues story has certainly not upheld the promise that the groups early career originally portended, their legacy within the context of R&B music at the end of the 20th century cannot be understated. Without En Vogue and the creative blueprint they established, female-fronted R&B acts such as SWV, Total, Jade, Xscape, Zhane, and yes, even Destinys Child, would never have been as successful as they were. And while its certainly hard to find new En Vogue music nowadays, thankfully, we can always revisit Born to Sing to relive the groups more harmonious heyday and hope for better days from them ahead.
My Favorite Song: Hold On
“Don’t Go” (1991)
“You Don’t Have to Worry” (1990)
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