Happy 20th Anniversary to Groove Theorys Groove Theory, originally released October 24, 1995.
Earlier this year, I shared my Long Play Love for Amel Larrieuxs debut solo album Infinite Possibilities to commemorate the 15th anniversary of its release in February 2000 (read the full tribute here). Today, Im turning back the clock by a few more years, to the fall of 1995, when the group and breakthrough album that formally introduced the divine Mrs. Larrieux to the music world emerged, much to the collective delight of soulheads worldwide.
In 1991, when former Mantronix member Bryce Wilson was fortuitously introduced to the Manhattan-raised Larrieux at the time, an 18 year-old music publishing company receptionist slash aspiring singer-songwriter the creative seeds that would soon blossom into Groove Theory were planted. As cultural critic and soulhead contributor Michael A. Gonzales explores in his insightful Ebony article, upon shopping their early demos to various labels, Larrieux and Wilson were met with a fair (or more accurately, unfair) amount of skepticism. The myopic record execs who heard the duo’s early songs had trouble envisioning how to effectively market their unique, more substantive brand of hip-hop soul in the post-new jack swing era.
Nevertheless, the two kindred musical spirits ultimately secured a recording contract with Epic Records, and within just a few years time, the duo released their debut single Tell Me, followed soon thereafter by their first proper LP Groove Theory. Speaking with Tavis Smiley last year, Larrieux reflected fondly upon the groups early days, sharing that The greatest part about [Groove Theory] is Im a songwriter first. Those songs I wrote. Straight out the box, I was eighteen when I signed to Epic. So its a really lovely reflection on the first thing that I gave to the world.
With a slew of successful releases including R. Kellys R Kelly, Faith Evans Faith, Jodecis The Show, the After-Party, the Hotel, Mariah Carey‘s Daydream, and the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack, 1995 was a fruitful year for contemporary soul music. Moreover, largely driven by the arrival of DAngelo and his universally acclaimed juggernaut of a first album, Brown Sugar, a burgeoning sub-genre that would be classified for better or for worse as neo-soul a few years later was effectively born. While Groove Theory tasted success right out of the gates with the unforgettable hip-hop flavored soul of Tell Me, the Groove Theory album flew a bit under the radar from a commercial perspective, relative to the higher profile R&B albums released that same year and despite generally positive critical raves. The album would eventually be certified gold, reflecting 500,000 units sold, but based on the strength of the songs contained therein, it deserves a place in far more record collections than this.
Those who casually embraced Groove Theorys music following the Mary Jane Girls indebted hit Tell Me may have naively surmised that Wilson was the primary mastermind behind the groups sound even despite his relatively low public profile and assumed that Larrieuxs contributions to the album extended no further than flexing her angelic voice and flashing her beautiful face. However, such a reductive understanding of the vital roles plural that Larrieux adopted in developing the album could not have been more misguided.
More accurately, the albums creation was much more of a collaborative affair that ultimately showcased Larrieuxs penchant for sophisticated yet accessible songcraft and her multi-dimensional talents, from songwriting to arranging to producing and beyond, all of which coalesced seamlessly with Wilsons production prowess. In a 2006 interview with Nu-Soul Magazine, Larrieux candidly explains:
Inspiration [for creating the album] was being young and green and having years and years of songs written before then, and never being in the studio before. Its a live combination of inexperience, excitement, innocence, and a lot to say, you know being years and years of writing stuff, and watching things, and I grew up at the time, that the Native Tongues was really popular, that really influenced me. I think I grew up in the heyday of hip-hop, the best hip-hop, the late 80s, early 90s, so I had a lot of stuff to inspire musically that was going on. And, it was inspirational, for me, as a songwriter, to be able to have, all my own material that I was writing, as opposed to, being in a group where some things are written for you. I was producing my own vocals. And I was arranging everything, and doing all my own backgrounds. That in itself was inspirational because it let me carve out my own niche. Control my own sound.
And what a magnificent sound it turned out to be.
For my money, Groove Theory still stands as one of the most consistently sublime modern soul albums of the past two decades, and all in all, the album far exceeds the initial promise of the bona fide classic Tell Me. Most of the LPs 14 tracks are beat-heavy, midtempo fare, but this sonic template doesnt mean that variety is absent. With a few ballads of the more subdued ilk (Hey U and the Isley Brothers by way of Todd Rundgren interpolation of Hello, Its Me) included, the smoothly executed sequencing from song to song ensures that the listening experience as a whole sounds sufficiently fresh and vibrant throughout. Indeed, each track derives its own unique strength via Larrieuxs introspective narratives and versatile vocal chops, combined with their daydream-inducing soundscapes.
A primary theme that extends throughout the course of the album is the discovery and celebration of love, passion and companionship, as exemplified by tracks like Ride, Baby Luv, Tell Me, Good 2 Me, and Didja Know. Larrieux has an uncanny knack for writing and singing about the richness of romance with undeniable clarity and sincerity, while avoiding the all-too-common pitfalls of songwriting that devolves toward the sugary-sweet, superficial and overwrought. On Angel, one of the albums many standout tracks, Larrieux flips the subject of her narrative to assume the perspective of a lovestruck man who finds himself happily swept up in the rapture of some kind of angel. The tracks romantic idealism is endearing and avoids over-sentimentality, as evidenced by verses like:
Perfection in his eyes for the rest of his life
Could she be his
After the first time he met her
He was already naming their kids, yeah
Somethin’ like this
Is just what papa told him
He should never ever miss
Would be so nice to wake up to her
Every morning and every night, yeah
It feels so right
And in his heart he knows that she’s the one
Who will one day be his wife
Another highlight is Come Home, a desperate plea for a young man seduced by street life to relinquish his perilous lifestyle in exchange for the love and affection of his partner, who astutely advises that the the street will never love you like I do.
Other recurring threads include the importance of possessing compassion for those battling adversity (10 Minute High) and instilling hope among the hopeless (Keep Tryin). The poignant album closer Boy at the Window serves as a sobering cautionary tale that explores the destructive, dream-deflating impact that reckless, absentee parenting invariably has on the victimized children.
Regrettably, though not surprisingly, Groove Theorys success engendered label-driven expectations for a carbon-copy like follow up LP that Larrieux was reluctant to fulfill. Instead of capitulating to the demands and compromising her artistic integrity and peace of mind, she left the group to pursue what has since become a rewarding solo career. Following her 2000 debut solo LP Infinite Possibilities, Larrieux left Epic Records to pursue a more independent, DIY and entrepreneurial approach to recording. The liberating transition empowered her to launch her own label (Blisslife Records) with her husband Laru Larrieux, which, in turn, enabled her to nurture a career propelled by her own creative ambitions, beholden to no others. Each of the four albums Larrieux has released via Blisslife to date is excellent, with 2004s Bravebird being a personal favorite of mine.
Larrieux and Wilson briefly resurrected Groove Theory in 2010 for a handful of live shows that extended through 2013. And while rumors of the duo recording new songs together have swirled in select circles for a few years now, no new music has materialized from the pair thus far. Hopefully, the door for a Groove Theory reunion sometime in the future isnt completely closed. But in the meantime, their superb debut album demands more than a few nostalgic, celebratory spins from each and every one of us.
My Favorite Song: Angel
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