Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
Consider the landscape of today’s R&B and hip hop, populated by girl singers grinding their way across tracks written, produced and test marketed for them by multiple teams of biz hitmakers, pushed by a promotional cycle that can sometimes land them in tabloids and on gossip sites. Then consider En Vogue: four Oakland, California women — Dawn Robinson. Maxine Jones, Terry Ellis and Cindy Herron — who combined sex appeal, girl power (they predated Spice Girls), major vocal cords and not one scandal.
Released on March 24, 1992, Funky Divas was a dream scenario: a sophomore album that utterly eclipsed their debut, 1990’s Born To Sing. Produced by Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy, Divas’ thirteen tracks spanned everything from Beatles-inspired pop (literally, a cover of “Yesterday”) to rock (“Free Your Mind”) to light rap (“It Ain’t Over Till the Fat Lady Sings”). The opening track, “This Is Your Life”, foreshadowed the success with a spoken intro positioning En Vogue as superstars rushing to appear on stage before screaming hordes.
“Free Your Mind”
The Funky Divas Of Soul: First single “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get it)” may have stalled at #2 on the Billboard‘s Hot 100 — damn those Kriss Kross boys! — but it blazed across MTV and radio. “Free Your Mind”, a snarling empowerment anthem, presented what would be En Vogue’s most iconic visual: swinging their epic ponytails on a runway in thigh high boots. The song, like the Mark Romanek-directed video, literally struts.
“My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)”
Givin’ Us Something We Can Feel: En Vogue’s team also knew that it couldn’t hurt to lure in their parents’ generation. “Giving Him Something He Can Feel”, a Curtis Mayfield track originally released by Aretha Franklin, came complete with a slinky retro video, again capitalizing on the group’s model-worthy looks and pure vocal harmonies.
“Giving Him Something He Can Feel”
And It Goes A Little Something Like This!: Funky Divas was rounded out by smooth, harmony-laden pop/R&B hybrids like “Hip Hop Lover” and “Love Don’t Love You.” It was also laced with kicky wit: the best example being the gossipy intro vignette to “Give It Up, Turn It Loose,” a creamy-smooth track that has, perhaps, aged best, with the divas backstage discussing who’s zoomin’ who. “Ooh! Kevin Swahili, I knew it! He’s got cooties!” So quotable.
“Give It Up, Turn It Loose”
What Happened Next: After sales of 5 million for Funky Divas, the next chapter is a cliché of music biz hiccups, including a stop-gap (but excellent) EP called Runaway Love. Record labels pushed their moneymakers just as hard in the ’90s, and financial/management concerns led Dawn Robinson to leave the group. The Fab Four was no more. It would take five years to compete the follow-up, 1997′s 3. Despite some solid tracks, this one lacked the fizzy mojo so prevalent on Funky Divas. Following a few more worthy singles, the group splintered further.
Live appearances from 2008 through 2010 suggested that all four original members were finally ready for a new LP, but Dawn Robinson decided not to join her En Vogue sisters in the studio.
Will they ever reunite?: We can only hope they find a way to stand side-by-side and, simply, sing their hearts out once more. It’s easy to label En Vogue a “girl group.” Pop culture in 2012 places a skewed value on the public airing of its big stars’ personal dramas. To call En Vogue “girls” seems to diminish their inherent strength. Yes, they were sassy, had fierce heels and wicked hair. But through their music, these four women gave a literal voice to race, faith, love and sex in a united front of female power. And that is harmony.
Can you believe Funky Divas is 20? What’s your favorite memory of the album? Let us know below, or by hitting us up on Facebook and Twitter! And make sure to check out our other recent Backtracking features on Kylie Minogue’s Fever, Spice Girls’ Spice, Daft Punk’s Homework and No Doubt’s self-titled debut album.