Rewind: Diana King Is Tougher & Bolder Than Love

I'd like to say that I got into Reggae due to the usual suspects --- Bob Marley & The Wailers, Sly & Robbie, Black Uhuru --- but I know that's not true. What is true is that the first sounds of Jamaican 'riddims' that I actively heard, and became enchanted with, came from Diana King's "Shy Guy".

Yep. "Shy Guy", the briskly cool and funky single that shot the Spanish Town native into prominence in the spring of 1995 is where I got my first taste of the island vibe, and it was a turning point to say the least. At the time I was just beginning to understand the variance of music, all its sounds, genres, sub-genres, etc., attempting to branch away from my Barbie and Wee Sing tapes, while tapping into the popular local FM radio stations, gaining knowledge through the Columbia House pamphlets that screamed BUY 100 ALBUMS FOR $1.00!!!, and lending a small ear to whatever my father was putting on the turntable (lots o' Jazz, Jazz-fusion, and funk).

Hearing "Shy Guy" was different, way different. King was knocking me over with her fiery patois, and punctuating this wild reggae fusion groove with a diva belting chorus that proclaimed --- no demanded --- that a "fly guy" wasn't what she wanted, no, she wanted a "shy guy", the kind of guy who would only be hers and hers alone, and who wasn't putting his peter piper pepper into every girl he picked. Oh lawd, have mercy, mercy this was grown folks talk and a grown sound, and I was all in for it.

I should side-note that the first time I heard "Shy Guy", I was at the edge of 11, with school yard crushes and Keanu Reeves on the brain, and well, I didn't know the distinction between a "fly guy" or a "shy guy" per se. King's bombastic single brought to me some awareness that no "special episode" on Family Matters could alert me to, and I came to a lofty conclusion --- one that I still hold onto  --- guys are hella confusing. Okay, not all of you are, but some of y'all could be questions on Trivia Crack, I'm just saying...

I wasn't the only one who got knocked sideways by "Shy Guy". It was a pretty big hit for King who had previously had vocal credits on the soundtrack for the 1993 film, Cool Runnings, and Notorious B.I.G.'s iconic Ready To Die. The track became an even bigger smash when it became latched to the soundtrack of the Michael Bay-directed film, Bad Boys. The action-comedy film starred the tag-team of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as Miami narcotics detectives, and at the time, the flick was geared to easily transition the two sitcom stars into bankable action film stars.

Also making a transition was the sound of R&B, and the mid-'90s was rife with shape-shifting ideas and themes to where old habits like New Jack swing were bowing out, and new ones like hip-hop and neo-soul were beginning to take over. Reggae fusion had already threaded its way into the fiber of hip-hop thanks to artists such as Shabba Ranks and Heavy D, (and if we're being technical, The Police courted the sound during their reign), but "Shy Guy" was one of the first to take the sub-genre into sound territories it had never been associated with before, this time spiking it with the flavors of pop, House, and soul to cull one effortless cocktail that still hugged every curve of dancehall, but was still unmistakably unique.

Written by King and producer, Andy Marvel, this new sound latched on, as "Shy Guy" climbed to lucky number #13, and outside of Jon B & Babyface's "Someone To Love" the track became the most successful song on the Bad Boys soundtrack.

For the occasion, King released two music videos, one was shot in black n' white, and the other was directed by Bay himself, and featured Smith and Lawrence cutting up and actin' like fools as King strode fierce across a runway.

In recalling '90s nostalgia, most remember King by "Shy Guy", but not the album that accompanied it, Tougher Than Love. I personally didn't know of it until about eight years ago. I was spending the summer of my sophomore year visiting my parents in the hick-town-that-shall-not-be-named that they had recently moved to, and while being bored out of my skull there, one day I trudged into the dusty little Hastings entertainment store they had and found this gem. Yes, a Diana King album was in the sale bin for $5.99 in one of THE most whitewashed areas in Texas. It was a sobering message, a sign, a beacon of hope. Someone with some music taste either had lived or had once roamed there and had seen to it to leave me a lifeline.

Okay, okay...I'm exaggerating a tad, but it's not too often that you find misbegotten '90s reggae fusion/R&B in the middle of the tumbleweed existence of the Texas Panhandle, so you take it as some sort of divine intervention.

But I digress...

I wish I had heard Tougher Than Love earlier because it follows in the same vein as my beloved, "Shy Guy" as the set respectfully hangs tight to King's Jamaican roots, with producer Marvel allowing her to plant them into a rich bed of stylish soul and pop that lean, at times, towards the UK House styles of Soul II SoulCaron Wheeler and Adeva. While this all may seem like a bit much, each track just glides and weaves in-and-out of each genre making for a uniquely rich and sultry smoooooth listening experience.

Outside of "Shy Guy", singles, "Love Triangle", a cover of Rufus & Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody", and "Treat Her Like A Lady" were released, but they were three Jan Brady's to the Marsha Brady that was "Shy Guy" as they charted unfairly low. I emphasize unfairly, because they weren't terrible single choices, in fact, King does one of the best renditions of "Ain't Nobody" I've ever heard as she matches the vocal scorching that Khan put on it back in 1983 while also adding the flair of the island beat with deep pocketed percussion. LL Cool J would record a pretty good version for the Beavis & Butt-head Do America soundtrack a year later, the single even reaching higher on the charts than King's, but I still prefer how King turned the song into her own affair.

"Love Triangle" is another unsung favorite. It's a mid-tempo jammy where King puts in a steamy, roused vocal, digging hard into the chorus as she confesses her soap operatic dilemma ("have you ever been in love with a man, and then another man?" Guuurl, yes...), just swaying and rocking in the tight groove.

Infidelity has never sounded this classy.

Other highlights like the sweet soul of "Can't Do Without You", the carnal yearning of opener, "Love Me Thru The Night", and the zig-zag rhythms of the hip-hop tinged title track play up either King's tenderness or her penchant to twist into the power dynamic quite well.

As much as the music is concerned, I also dig how King transitions her voice, allowing it to try on different attire, from the breathy falsettos heard tip-toeing around a Prince-esque rubbersnap groove on "Slow Rush"  to her swirling a thick alto rue around the steady rock of "Black Roses". King has such a prismatic voice on her that it's criminal to me that she didn't blast ahead of the pack of divas that were around that time. I often place her in the same bracket as my other neglected songbird, Lisa Fischer, as they were both vocally competing with the powerhouse likes of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton, and Celine Dion, and just didn't get the grand due that they should have gotten. Still, it was the '90s, stiff diva competition abounded.

Speaking of Dion, King's saucy "Treat Her Like A Lady" became a solid single for the French-Canadian chanteuse when she released it on her 1997 album, Let's Talk About Love (you know the album with the unavoidable Titanic theme song on it), and King actually backs her up vocally on the rework. The only visual evidence of this encounter is this performance at the 1998 Essence Music Awards where King, along with the members of Brownstone (minus Kina) join Dion on stage, and you haven't truly lived and breathed life correctly until you've seen Dion slow wine and get her patois on.

Bless this performance, bless Dion's pantsuit, bless the '90s --- just bless all of it.

Diana King may have started something when she introduced us to her "Shy Guy", as later on, reggae fusion became a healthy part of the R&B, pop, and rock fiber when the '90s sunset into the new millennium. Shaggy found international success when he became a shrugging emoticon with "It Wasn't Me". Lady Saw broke into the mainstream when she was featured on award-winning charttoppers, No Doubt's "Underneath It All" and Vitamin C's "Smile". Also we can't slight Rihanna who too brought a steady stream of dancehall riddims to the Billboard Hot 100. Still, the list may go on and continue to, but to me after 20 years, Diana King remains at the top of it, tougher and bolder than them all. 
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