Rewind: Favorite Diva Albums Of 1985 [Part Three]


+ Sade - Promise

Sade's nucleus is in Sade herself. Ms. Adu is jazz-pop's fashion model, striking and gorgeous in look, but soothing and cozy in her vocal delivery. Turn to the right and the left, it's fashion. Her smoky alto is the signature pin in the lapel of their opulent sound. Their balmy sonic framework that blurred the lines of jazz, Latin, pop, blues, and soul is why Sade became the preferred soundtrack for yuppies to carouse and count money to, as well as for lovers to dim the lights and get busy with. Listening to Sade will make you want to sip bubbly on a yacht and then make a baby all in one cool sip --- it's hypnotic in that way. All of that is perfectly fine, but to me, this is where some confusion of Sade and their work lies as it's almost too easy to dismiss their stuff as background music, because it's really not.

Listening to Promise gives you a different impression of this group as it takes them beyond the novelty of their 1984 debut Diamond Life. With their debut, the group became key curators of the English-bred sophisti-pop sound, its singles "Smooth Operator" and "Your Love Is King" extending their penchant for sonic conciseness. Promise was similarly conceived like Diamond Life in that it was record live, its intimacy already stitched on its sleeve, but whenever I listen to Promise, I feel this is the album that gave the group depth. Sure the saxophone needles and Adu is vocally seductive, causing you to lull and sigh, but tuning out the plushwork of it, stripping the songs right to their words you'll hear songs about abuse ("Fear"), songs about racial identity ("Tar Baby"), wistful memory poems of past friendships ("Maureen"), of lovers in conflict ("War Of Hearts"). There's just more there, there.

Opener "Is It A Crime" lends as the band's most ambitious and textural piece. As the lyrics relay, the song literally dives and jumps, bursts into tears and dries them, Sade's voice crawling into guttural sobs and then coming down in soft, whimpering pleas as she battles within her head about her problematic paramour. She knows he's no good, but she's rooted in his toxicity to where she's locked, and her pain is far beyond the shoulder shrug of being played by the suave leisure suit wearing 'smooth operator', this pain cuts to marrow. It's why "Is It A Crime" is a true blues number at its core, jazz is just flourish in its instrumental downtime, and the contrast is brilliant, the whole song is a showstopper. Sadly, it never reached a high chart position, it wasn't even a single to begin with as it only gained notoriety due to radio's once popular practice to play album tracks, especially when the band was as popular as Sade.

"The Sweetest Taboo" relieves the heaviness of "Is It A Crime", trickling plush and lovingly, packed with great little bites of poetry ("There's a quiet storm, I think it's you"). To me, this is the Sade track that almost everyone likes as I've never met a person who didn't name it off as one of their favorites. It's has a mirthful quality that is easier to chew on, and at the time it was the band's biggest single, this jewel reaching to the #5 slot. Second single, "Never As Good As The First Time" is about as funky as Sade gets, next to "Maureen", both tracks exuding an air of somberness even in their brisk whistling strides of bass and piano. The cheekiness of "Mr. Wrong" and "War Of Hearts" notes the playfulness in Adu's voice, how she is not so lulling and straight-forward as critics often note her as.

Promise is beyond being a mating call for lovers and yuppies. As a whole it widened the pool of thematic productions the band did previously, elevating them a step above their peers and sustained their nuanced and sophisticated sound. It was a beginning for even grander pronouncements more so than it was an end.


Stream + Listen: Sade - Promise 

++++


+ Cherrelle - High Priority

A lot of Janet Jackson fans don't like to entertain the idea that whenever you listen to a Cherrelle album, you can hear Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis fine-tuning their sound to attempt to make it more palpable and bendable for a pop market. We wouldn't see the effects until Jackson's Control, and the hapless failed experiment to ease New Wave band, Human League into uncharted, glittering funk waters until a year later (and to not get checked, I do not consider Crash "hapless" or a failure --- it has "Human" on it which is one of the greatest songs...ever, so yeah, not a failure), but in 1985 and on Cherrelle's High Priority, you can hear how advanced the duo were getting with their technique. Still, High Priority isn't a rough draft to Control, nope, it's a little fuss pot all on its own due to Cherrelle's frisky charms and a handful of hit singles that are now considered funk-soul classics.

I've always liked Cherrelle, her spunk, her sardonic sense of humor and winking wit that give her songs a distinctive personality. She is just a lot of fun to listen to. A lot of this humor and playfulness shone on her 1984 debut, Fragile...Handle With Care, but only in small doses and only on the tracks that Jam and Lewis were present. Wise to know that Jam and Lewis are truly 'The Secret', High Priority pulls all of its tricks from their fedoras, and for this choice, Cherrelle gains one of her best efforts in her ever-so short catalog.

High Priority is funky, funky, and more funky. "You Look Good To Me" is fun and roars with rock guitars, yips, and squeals, while "Artificial Heart" feels pre-"What Have You Done For Me Lately", wagging a finger at a dude who's got an icebox where his heart used to be."Oh No, It's You Again" plays like a sequel to her classic, "I Didn't Mean To Turn You On" as Cherrelle is still trying to shoo away the pesky simpleton who is "screwing up her life". The funk does quell a bit when "Will You Satisfy" charms its way in. It's the perfect little slow jam, where you can almost see Cherelle bat her eyelashes, beckoning you to sit down beside her as she causally peers at you over a glass of wine. It's all a seductive game until at the final moment Cherrelle lets her humor leap out --- and to tell the punchline would be a spoiler.

High Priority is mostly notable for featuring the R&B classic, "Saturday Love". The pairing with Alexander O'Neal would prove to be a natural union this side of Marvin Gaye finding kinship with Tammi Terrell, one that would continue to happen on-and-off for years to come, but this is where the smoldering vocal chemistry between Cherrelle and O'Neal began to spark. I'm just going to be blunt about this but "Saturday Love" is probably one of the Blackest duet songs you'll ever hear. We thought "Fire & Desire" was (Teena Marie is just tan, remember?), but naw, this is #BlackExcellence, this is where Keith Sweat and Jacci Mcghee's "Make It Last Forever" (the other Blackest duet ever) got some ideas from, this is where '90s R&B got its foundation from. Whenever I listen to it, it has me long for the days when R&B music wasn't watered down just to gain chart traction. This song, as 'Black' and as soulful as it is, gave both Cherrelle and Alexander O'Neal their biggest pop hit to date, as it charted at a worthy #26 on the Hot 100. Yes, pop hit, crossover hit, and it's as genuine and unvarnished as it can be.

On the technical side, High Priority also introduces Jam and Lewis' little production quirks and sound embellishments, ones that would become signature techniques for them. On here they weave in thematic instrumental breaks, glitching vocals, conversations made in restaurants, the clinking of glasses and forks to plates, lots of cool little effects that take the music beyond funky bass beats. The versatility Jam and Lewis have with music and structure really shines here, and this type of permission allows Cherrelle to not be inhibited to be herself, her guard is down, she can be as feisty as she wants to be, and like Jackson later on, her personal reactions are essential to the character building of her albums.

Cherelle's New Jill opus, the brilliant Affair, is only a few short years away, but High Priority is where a lot of ideas were germinated and where the tone is set, and where Jam and Lewis hit their stride as producers in-demand with their icon Minneapolis sound.


Stream + Listen: Cherrelle - High Priority 

++++


+ Mary Jane Girls - Only Four You

The creation of the Mary Jane Girls came out of a unspoken petty feud between Rick James and Prince who were both trying to out div-o each other in the early 1980s.

Alright. Your bullshit meter is going off because yeah, you caught me weaving urban legend, but c'mon it's pretty damn obvious that the Mary Jane Girls and Vanity 6, respectively, were created not only to give these bad boys of funk outside creative outlets to dabble in, but also so they could prove who had the prettier women in their harems. I mean...I'm just sure of it. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it's truly more fun to believe this, so just roll with me on this, okay?

While Vanity 6 played up their centerfold looks and pillow talked over a New Wave-meets-funk soundtrack, the Mary Jane Girls were big on voice and big on sassy, trashy funk, all of it guided by the versatile vocalist stylings of Joanne "JoJo" McDuffie. McDuffie began as a backing vocalist for James' Stone City Band in the 1970s, and in the beginning, James had pushed for McDuffie to forge a solo career, but Motown had misinterpreted James' request and singed an all-girl group instead. Joining McDuffie were Candice "Candi" Ghant, Cheryl Wells, and Kimberly "Maxi" Wuletich, all of whom had previously toured with James and his band. The quartet were then christened The Mary Jane Girls after James' favorite 'recreational' activity, and in 1983 they released their self-titled debut, scoring popular R&B hits with "All Night Long" and "Candy Man". James was the clear ringmaster of the group as he wrote, produced, and performed all the material with his band. To a larger appearance than promoted, sisters Maxine and Julia Waters assisted McDuffie with vocals due to the remaining members having limited vocal talent. Yes, I was devastated too when I found out the rest of the MJG's were just stylish stand-ins.

1985 saw the group replacing Wells with Yvette "Corvette" Marine, and releasing their second, and last album, Only Four You. Only Four You was a special case as it features a lead vocal from each of the members, even though McDuffie and the Waters sisters are still propping the group up vocally. The album is tighter than their first effort, jammed with even more throbbing basslines and enticing hooks. It's fast and furious funk, something that James was king for as he didn't play around or dabble in too much precious experimentation --- it was what it was. "Break It Up" and "Wild & Crazy Love" are striking, stark funk workouts, while the twilight yearning, "Lonely For You", and sax-led torchy ballad, "Shadow Lover" cools things down.

The whole album feels well...a little sleazy, but that's how Rick James' music always sounded to me. It turned the red light on and didn't give any got damns as it got down in the dirty trenches of funk and rolled around in it all while licking its lips and seducing in leather and spandex. Mary Jane Girls played up James' aesthetic to the hilt (just listen to the pre-"Justify My Love", "Leather Queen"), they were an enticing bunch of dames, especially for men to fantasize and ogle at, obvious by how each of the four women were given specific "personalities": McDuffie was the "sassy street-wise girl", Wells the "Valley Girl", Ghant the "supermodel", and Wuletich was the "dominatrix" ---  separate, men could pick and choose whom fit their desires; combined, they could give you an idea of the "perfect woman". Tipper Gore probably got a whiff of this after she scrunched up her nose to, "In My House", lending as to why she placed the song on PMRC's notorious 'Filthy Fifteen' list. In 2015 terms, the sexual innuendos of "In My House" are pretty tame, but they are there. Still I'm no prude, this song is romantic sleaze at it's most unabashed, and it wouldn't be the fantastic funk classic it is if it wasn't.

People didn't entertain Mrs. Gore's decries as her condemning it probably helped it soar to #7 on the Pop charts, where it became the Mary Jane Girls biggest hit. Only Four You didn't suffer by the hand of Gore, as James' legal tussles with Motown silenced the group almost indefinitely and immediately after Only Four You's release. It's a shame considering that the album is one of funk music finest.

Sure Only Four You doesn't have tact, but funk is never supposed to have all that, and yes, the women were mere figureheads, but they all look like they are having a blast and you can't deny all that bass and all that swagger that Rick James had in the 1980s. In all, Only Four You is just a F-U-N album, a start to finish listen (okay, "Leather Queen" isn't the greatest...) that makes you feel like you're having a slumber party with your girls, dishing out all kinds of horny, salacious tea.


Stream + Listen: Mary Jane Girls - Only Four You (or rather their greatest hits, which has almost every song from 'Only Four You' on it!)

++++


+ Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam - Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam With Full Force

Coming straight outta pre-gentrified Hell's Kitchen, singer, Lisa Velez (aka Lisa Lisa), drummer/keyboardist Mike Hughes, and guitarist/bassist Alex "Spanador" Mosley came together by sheer full force...or rather the production group called Full Force, that is. Once the group was christened Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam the trio would become the principal architects of the Freestyle movement with their debut album a representation of the genre's penchant for fusing syncopated Latin rhythms with R&B and hip-hop-inspired riffs.

Present on Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam With Full Force (say that five times fast...) are three of the group's biggest hits, and probably three of the biggest hits of the 1980s: "I Wonder If I Take You Home", "All Cried Out", and "Can You Feel The Beat". "I Wonder If I Take You Home" has a Cinderella-esque story, as it was flat-out ignored when it was first released, but got its chance to dance at the ball when it appeared on a compilation album by producer Kenny Beck. After that particular showcase, the track zoomed up to the top of the dance and R&B charts, as well as found a position on the Hot 100, resting at #34 --- this a crossover feat for a group that was this ethnically diverse in look and in sound. The hypnotic, heavily Flamenco-flavored "Can You Feel The Beat" followed, taking the dance and R&B charts by storm. Fairing even better at #8 on the pop charts was the soap operatic "All Cried Out", a he-said-she-said ballad that featured Lisa Lisa sharing vocal duties with Full Force's Bow Legged Lou.

As crowded as the album title was, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam also were a bit slighted by Full Force's involvement, as over time, band members Hughes and Mosley felt somewhat wedged out of the creative process for the group. It is true, Full Force dominate the album as well as future releases, almost to the point where they had to have a track like the spastic, record scratch laden, "This Is Cult Jam" to let people know who was who, but like most groups the focus is always on the lead singer, and Lisa Lisa was the true focal point of Cult Jam and the Full Force collective. Some serious props need to be given to Lisa Lisa because she held it down among all those dudes, not afraid to flex her femininity. She also needs to be given props for being one of the true style icons of the 1980s as her undercut Veronica Lake-styled bang, headbands, and colorful, funky New York style were top-notch. Lisa Lisa was that chick, and though she was before my time, I have a tendency to tell my bangs to "do the Lisa Lisa" every now and then, just in her honor. Seriously. It's a good look. *fluffs bangs*

Not only did Lisa Lisa deliver the look, but she also gave the group a slight tenderness to their sharp sound with her high-pitched sweetened vocals. Still you couldn't crack her exterior or call her a pushover. No matter if she had a trembling lip with "All Cried Out" and the synth crunch of "Behind My Eyes", she still put her foot down about pre-marital sex on "I Wonder" or made it clear on "Private Property" that she practiced monogamy. She's also great at detecting liars and cheats, like on the cynical, "You'll Never Change" where I can just image her standing, arms akimbo, rolling her eyes at some weak ass dude who is trying to take her granted.

Though the group would crossover into pop and New Jack territories in later years, this is where the good stuff happened, where some of the earliest renderings of Freestyle, hip-hop, and acid East Coast funk began, and what the Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam sound became known as. Even though the album does sound dated, I still consider Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam's debut to be a cornerstone record for the 1980s. Largely because, "Can You Feel The Beat" is one of the greatest songs ever, but mostly (and more accurately) it was a game changer for the pop and R&B music world. What's a little interesting is that this album got more love as the years went on, from Nina Sky and Black Eyed Peas taking sound cues from it, to the short-lived group Allure making an even bigger hit out of "All Cried Out" when their version with 112 was released in 1997 --- it's an album that long after it's so-called shelf life, continued to endure.


++++


+ Shannon - Do You Wanna Get Away

From my understanding, Do You Wanna Get Away did 'just okay' when it was released. It didn't pack as much heat chart-wise with only its title track reaching #1 on the Dance charts and meandering somewhere in the bottom 40 on the Hot 100. Charts are bullshit, really. They don't necessarily tap into what the public is really listening to, just what is promoted and billed over the rest. This isn't to say that the music you see on the charts isn't worthy of your time or of being popular and acclaim-worthy, but rather I'm stating that charts aren't always determining factors on what makes great music.

Do You Wanna Get Away is great music, well, to me. I love every single song on it and listen to it quite frequently. It's not the most progressive album in this whole series and it doesn't spark a sound movement like Shannon's 1984 debut, Let The Music Play did, it just does its job by being entertaining as hell with its Italo-disco influence, Shannon's soulful sound palate, and the powerful hi-NRG sound of the mid-80s. In shorter TL;DR terms --- it's a splashy, spirited sequel to Let The Music Play.

Shannon answered "Let The Music Play" with an even bigger artillery of synth-drenched jams, that could get anyone itching to hit the dance floor. The title track is big, with synths pounding you from all sides, it almost sounds as if you've entered into the inner-workings of an computer, and the music video pretty much gives you that visual. To highlight a commenter on YouTube: "I miss the eighties when things jumped out of the computers to sparkle up your life with magical adventures and shit." The music video is a masterpiece It follows a cheesy romantic plot-line, has crazy special FX, Jheri curled guys sweating all hard as they fake-play guitars...and FOG MACHINES! Fuck a cowbell, we need more fog machines!

At its heels, the punchy and well-sung "Stronger Together" was the album's second single, and it did worst than the first, though dance radio appreciated more. "Bedroom Eyes" and "Why Can't We Pretend" are Shannon's first attempts at slower, understated grooves and they both are sweet and gentle, allowing Shannon's lyrical and soulful tone to break through.

"Stop The Noise" and "Let Me See Your Body Move" are underrated club jaunts, and personally both are better than the title track, with the former a buoyant pop number that is even more fabulous as a remix and the latter a evocative nighttime crawler. Shannon's take on Foreigner's classic "Urgent" is funkier and synth-heavier than the original, only the punch of Junior Walker's saxophone is truant. Personally, I prefer Walker's version from the Desperately Seeking Susan soundtrack a bit better, but if you want a femme-charged version of "Urgent" then look no further than Shannon's version complete with glitzy, high-kicking Solid Gold dancers. <--- You'll thank me and want to give me everything on my Amazon wishlist after clicking that link...

Shannon would release another great album the following year, 1986's Love Goes All The Way, but Do You Wanna Get Away is truly her strongest offering, that sadly, didn't get its due. Of course in the mid-'80s it only seemed that there was only room for one dance-pop queen at the time (Madonna, duh...), but I often like to wedge Shannon in there as before Janet Jackson and Jody Watley broke out, Shannon was the one holding it down for the new breed of funky sistas out there. Black girl magic, y'all....


++++

Let's review shall we?

Part One | Part Two
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