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“The New Jack Swing is the sound that can flatter / Any other sound around town doesn't give the / Same type of feeling that this one delivers / So your body shivers, so bad / Some dope beat medicine you wish you had / Dipping your feelings from glad to sad / But you're not getting a thing / So just chill and get whipped by the New Jack Swing” – Wreckx-N-Effect, “New Jack Swing” (1989)
The specific timing of the relatively short-lived New Jack Swing movement’s genesis remains open to interpretation to this day. Many cite the emergence of producer extraordinaire Teddy Riley (of Guy and Blackstreet fame, among many other achievements) circa 1987 as the driving force behind the inception of the hip-hop influenced R&B subgenre. In fact, the term “New Jack Swing” was first coined by journalist and screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper in an October 1987 Village Voice article entitled “Teddy Riley’s New Jack Swing: Harlem Gangsters Raise a Genius.”
Others contend that the musical seeds of New Jack Swing were planted the year prior, by the visionary songwriting/production duo and former Prince associates Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. In early 1986, Jam and Lewis collaborated with Janet Jackson to deliver her breakthrough third album Control, which, with its heavy reliance on drum machine driven beats, synth-laden grooves, and dance-pop melodies, introduced a fresh and unique sonic template that redefined contemporary R&B as we knew it in the mid 1980s.
Regardless of when New Jack Swing first surfaced, the musical era that followed for the next six or seven years was an effervescent and prolific one, with seemingly countless artists delivering memorable hit singles and smash albums in abundance. As the saying goes, however, all good things must come to an end, and such was the case with New Jack Swing.
By the mid ‘90s, soul music was fatigued and starved for revitalization. Whatever creative energy had still flowed during the early ‘90s apex of the New Jack Swing movement had effectively been sapped by 1994 into 1995. Only a small handful of adventurous artists—Tony! Toni! Toné! and Meshell Ndegeocello immediately come to mind—were pushing the musical envelope for soul music at the time, which opened the door wide open for the next generation of singer-songwriters like D’Angelo, Maxwell, and Erykah Badu to breathe much-needed new life into R&B music.
But man, the New Jack Swing phenomenon was great while it lasted, wasn’t it? We think so, and that’s precisely why we’ve decided to indulge our—and your—collective nostalgia for the period that ran roughly from 1986 to 1993 by revisiting a handful of albums from the New Jack Swing era that have, in our opinion at least, aged remarkably well. We hope you enjoy the list that follows and the good memories it will surely induce, though we also encourage you to let us know if there are any new jack gems that should have been included here.
So without further ado, here are our choices for 20 New Jack Swing era albums that still sound great today, roughly three decades on.
PART 1 | PART 2 [Below]
AFTER 7 | After 7
Selected by Justin Chadwick
Last fall when After 7 released Timeless, their fourth studio album and first in more than two decades, the group instantly revived their loyal fans’ memories of their late ‘80s and early ‘90s heyday. Though, for many of us, we’ve never forgotten about After 7 despite their extended hiatus, largely due to the lasting impression the Indianapolis bred trio first made with their stellar self-titled debut album.
Released in the summer of 1989, After 7 was a true family affair, as Kevon and Melvin Edmonds enlisted their brother Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds to handle production & songwriting duties, alongside his trusted colleague Antonio “L.A.” Reid. “A lot of producers and artists get together for the very first time and they don’t know each other,” Melvin explained to Ebony shortly after the album hit stores. “It’s a lot easier working with family. They know you. They know your personality, so they know what buttons to push at the right time to get the most out of you.”
What Babyface and L.A. Reid got out of After 7 was a masterclass in sophisticated new jack soul, bolstered by the memorable hit singles “Heat of the Moment,” “Can’t Stop,” and “Ready or Not.” No flash in the pan, After 7’s three long players since—1992’s Takin’ My Time, 1995’s Reflections, and the aforementioned comeback effort Timeless—have only added to their well-deserved reputation as one of contemporary R&B’s quintessential class acts.
JANET JACKSON | Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814
Selected by Patrick Corcoran
Having arguably created New Jack Swing with 1986’s “Nasty,” Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Janet Jackson set about creating the follow up to Control under pressure from the record label to replicate its sound and success. They responded by ditching the iconic Minneapolis sound Linn Drum Machine and adopting the E-mu-SP1200, more associated with hip-hop’s so-called “Golden Age.” In doing so, they planted the flag of NJS in Rhythm Nation 1814 and ploughed on regardless of record label desires in 1989.
Yet a change in drum machine maketh not a classic album—that comes down to any number of other factors. The pigheaded stubbornness that saw them defy label advice and pursue a socially conscious concept album is one of them. Most NJS records are concerned with affairs of the heart and the sins of the flesh, and while Rhythm Nation has its share of that, what marks it out is its desire to say something about the world we live in—most of which (sadly) still holds true. There is substance and style here.
But most of all, it’s the undeniable quality of the songs on offer here that make this resonate so clearly some 27 years later. The pounding militaristic NJS of the (Sly Stone sampling) title track sets the template magnificently, while “The Knowledge,” “Miss You Much” and “Alright” don’t just fall in line behind the NJS flag, but carry it to some of its greatest heights.
LOOSE ENDS | Look How Long
Selected by Quentin Harrison
Loose Ends (Carl McIntosh, Jane Eugene and Steve Nichol) brought a clubbier underpinning to the sophisticated jazz that fellow Britons Sade put on the global stage with their 1984 debut Diamond Life. Their stated danceability came out of their hat in parallel to the New Jack Swing movement making waves stateside. Their fascination with the aforementioned American R&B offshoot and their own native avant-garde soul reached a feverish peak with their conceptually fueled junior LP, The Real Chuckeeboo (1988).
The original trio split after The Real Chuckeeboo, leaving McIntosh, one of the primary creative forces behind the outfit, to steer the fifth and final Loose Ends LP alone. Singer-songwriters Sunay Suleyman and Linda Carriere contributed a bit of songwriting and vocal work to Look How Long, but the bulk of the performances fell to McIntosh who rose to the occasion.
Though remembered for its charter “Don’t Be a Fool,” Look How Long housed a wealth of hypnotic hip-hop grooves and forward thinking rhythm arrangements (see “Don’t You Ever (Try to Change Me),” “Try My Love”). The subsequent burnishing of these tracks with McIntosh’s complex, charismatic keyboards and samples foreshadowed his eventual move into production in the 1990s. Look How Long isn’t given its due as one of the stronger albums from this epoch, but it remains an undeniable wild card worth rediscovering.
JOHNNY GILL | Johnny Gill
Selected by Justin Chadwick
Bobby Brown’s exit from New Edition in 1986 proved fortuitous not just for him and his solo career that took flight a few years later. His departure also proved to be a career windfall for the man who replaced him in the group: Johnny Gill.
Gill’s career predates his recruitment into the NE fold, however. Four years before he would join the group on the verge of internal combustion, Gill released his self-titled debut solo album at the age of 16, and then followed up with his sophomore effort Chemistry in 1985. Two years later Michael Bivins invited him to join New Edition to fill the hole left by Brown, and Gill slid right in, finding his comfort zone immediately on the group’s acclaimed fifth studio album Heart Break (1988), bestowing his mature tenor vocals upon classic NE tracks “Can You Stand the Rain” and “Boys to Men.”
In the spring of 1990, one month after his NE brethren Bell Biv DeVoe unleashed their debut album Poison, Gill released his third studio album, his second bearing his name. On the strength of the stirring ballad “My, My, My” and uptempo singles “Rub You the Right Way,” “Fairweather Friend,” and “Wrap My Body Tight,” the album remains Gill’s finest moment across his productive career. Propelled by Gill’s commanding tenor and the sterling production from powerhouse duos Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and Babyface and L.A. Reid, Johnny Gill is arguably the most consistently rewarding solo effort in the broader New Edition canon.
Tony! Toni! Toné! | The Revival
Selected by Brandon Ousley
Oakland’s first family of soul, Tony! Toni! Toné!—Raphael Wiggins (popularly known as Raphael Saadiq), his brother D’Wayne Wiggins, and their cousin Timothy Christian Riley—hit the scene with their debut album, Who?, in 1988. A modest, yet effective set of synth-laden club funk and silky soul balladry, Who? saw the Tonies setting their standard head on. Their distinctive knack for cleverly mixing classic soul influences with hip-hop informed New Jack Swing elements was seen as an unexpected anomaly in contemporary R&B. Nonetheless, they were a band that were truly rooted in the tradition of yesteryear funk and soul bands, devoting themselves to retaining the beauty of live instrumentation, while utilizing hip-hop technology of the time. Their debut album didn’t live up to what the band expected it to, but they reset their course two years later with their sophomore platter, 1990’s The Revival.
Just as the album’s celebratory second single “Feels Good” and its lively music video suggested, The Revival found the Tonies sliding into the bold Nineties with their oddball suits and colorful humor, venturing through Black music’s wondrous past for inspiration and schooling the New Jack generation on the music they grew up on since their formative years as West Oakland choirboys. Staying true to their original approach, the band moved beyond most of the New Jack posturing that grew formulaic by the time The Revival dropped in the spring of 1990 and kept their funk brand alive.
The humbling nuances that bubbled under the surface of their debut now beamed confidently through grooves of the slinky funk stomper “The Blues,” the hip-hop-accorded tribute to their hometown “Oakland Stroke,” the go-go-meets-Oakland funk of “All the Way,” and the airy soul of “Sky’s the Limit.” When it came to them honing their slow jam bag, the band certainly hit their stride with the smooth-sailing, D’Wayne Wiggins-led “Whatever You Want” and the forever immortal “It Never Rains (in Southern California),” which beautifully set the pace for Raphael Saadiq’s prowess as a dynamic soloist for years to come.
The Revival dropped at a rather interesting time in the R&B landscape. New Jack Swing still stood as a producer-accorded genre, where digitalized beats and buoyant, pop-oriented grooves mercurially rose on the charts and ruled the airwaves all in the same sweep. Crossover was still a major aspiration for several artists. Funk music was given a revitalized space in the realms of hip-hop, in which DJs sampled classic rhythm breaks and incorporated them in their productions. Although new legions of people were introduced to the versatility of the funk genre through samples, its commercial vitality was in an embattled state. Large ensemble bands that actually played live instruments were few and far between by the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the music industry turned its attention toward heartthrob singing groups that combined high energy dance routines with dynamic vocal harmonies.
Even though the Tonies would later hit higher plateaus, The Revival proved to be an undeniable commercial and artistic success for the Oakland crew. More importantly, it remains one of the forward-thinking achievements of the New Jack Swing era.
JODECI | Forever My Lady
Selected by Justin Chadwick
With their roots originally planted in the music of the church, the brotherly duos of Cedric “K-Ci” Hailey, his brother Joel “JoJo” Hailey, Donald “DeVante Swing” DeGrate, Jr., and his brother “Dalvin “Mr. Dalvin” DeGrate united their musical pedigree and career ambition to land a recording contract with Andre Harrell’s buzzing Uptown Records in 1991.
Thanks in large part to the vision and stewardship of one Mr. Sean Combs, an Uptown intern turned A&R director at the time, Jodeci redefined the R&B group blueprint in the early ‘90s as we knew it, by opportunistically—yet cleverly—embracing a hip-hop inspired aesthetic and swagger. But their appeal extended far beyond the more superficial surface appearances, as their initial suite of songs represented some of the most expertly crafted fare of the period, thanks to DeVante Swing’s inspired soundscapes coupled with K-Ci and JoJo’s rousing vocals.
Nearly one year after debuting on Uptown labelmate Father MC’s 1990 debut single “Treat Them Like They Want to Be Treated,” Jodeci unveiled their inaugural album Forever My Lady. While the quartet garnered substantial radio airplay and Billboard R&B chart supremacy for the trio of ballads (“Stay,” “Come and Talk to Me,” and the Al B. Sure! co-produced title track) that featured on the LP’s downtempo first half, I’ve personally always been partial to the album’s more dancefloor friendly latter half, with “Gotta Love,” “It’s Alright,” and “X’s We Share” the standout tracks.
Though their recording career as a foursome eventually lost steam by the mid ‘90s following 1995’s The Show, the After-Party, the Hotel, resulting in an extended 20-year group hiatus and K-Ci and JoJo’s wise decision to continue on as a duo, a one-album wonder Jodeci were not. Indeed, their 1993 sophomore LP Diary of a Mad Band—revisited by Daryl McIntosh later in this piece—rivals Forever My Lady as the group’s finest and most enduring effort to date.
KARYN WHITE | Ritual of Love
Warner Bros. (1991)
Selected by Quentin Harrison
Karyn White’s splashy self-titled debut was an immediate commercial hit in 1988. But the R&B scene had become quite crowded by that time. As a result of this, competition often got heated among artists. From a critical standpoint, some pundits opined dismissively that New Jack Swing was a fad, aiming much of their vitriol toward the women operating within this arm of rhythm and blues. White took this to heart and got actively involved with her sophomore album, Ritual of Love.
White co-wrote and co-produced the mass of Ritual of Love with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the latter of whom she had recently married. The collaboration paid off, bringing White’s personality to the fore of the second album where it hadn’t been on Karyn White. Splitting itself between stuttering, slamming New Jack dance (“Walkin’ the Dog”), it also made room to inventively splice the sub-genre with other styles. The title track for example brought in light tribal touches with its use of percussion, whereas “Hooked on You” was a sparse but chewy piece of Minneapolis synth-soul.
Many will recall the record’s mammoth hit, the sparkling “Romantic,” that platformed White’s radio ready pipes perfectly. Melody was central to the remaining portion of the LP based in a series of chilled out Quiet Storm numbers―“How I Want You” and “Tears of Joy” were stand-outs. In all, Ritual of Love was an even stronger batch of tunes from White, evidence that she was not a producer’s canvas, but an artist in her own right.
BOYZ II MEN | Cooleyhighharmony
Selected by Justin Chadwick
It’s tough to fathom that more than 25 years have passed since our ears were first blessed by the fresh, distinctive harmonies and new jack melodies of a fledgling group straight outta Philadelphia, PA. Backed by the famed Motown Records and Biv 10 Records founder Michael Bivins, Boyz II Men redefined crossover R&B in the first half of the ‘90s, just as their mentor’s group New Edition did in the previous decade.
Largely helmed by Bivins and producer extraordinaire Dallas Austin, the group’s breakthrough debut LP Cooleyhighharmony announced the arrival of the ambitious, remarkably gifted vocal quartet comprised of Mike McCary, Nathan Morris, Wanya Morris, and Shawn Stockman. While most will likely recall the album’s chartbusting singles “Motownphilly” and “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” (a cover of the original G.C. Cameron version featured in the 1975 film Cooley High), the entire record is defined by standout songs, from beginning to end.
Cooleyhighharmony would ultimately achieve multi-platinum status many times over, though not as many times as its 1994 follow-up, the not-so-originally titled II. No matter though, as Boyz II Men’s first suite of songs has aged remarkably well—arguably better than any other albums in their recorded repertoire to date—and remains a vital piece of the New Jack Swing puzzle.
CARON WHEELER | Beach of the War Goddess
Selected by Quentin Harrison
British soul, to a degree, had been reactionary to its American counterpart. However, as the 1990s dawned, the United Kingdom had consolidated its aural might by tempering American aesthetics with its own influences (acid jazz and world music). Imagination, Sade, Loose Ends and Soul II Soul epitomized this thrust, the latter act bringing it home with its hit single “Back to Life,” piloted by the enthralling Caron Wheeler. A singer and lyricist, Wheeler’s captivating inaugural album UK Blak (1990) continued the momentum of the United Kingdom in the modern R&B scene.
Wheeler’s take on New Jack Swing followed the blueprint of her British peers. She softened its sleek edges with the aforementioned world music and throwback R&B flourishes. To realize this sonic vision for her second LP Beach of the War Goddess, Wheeler roped in established (Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis) and up-and-coming (Keith Crouch) talent to assist her. As an album, the project divides its songwriting between socially conscious material (“Lite As a Feather”) and love songs (“I Adore You”). When the lyrical and musical aspects gelled, Beach of the War Goddess forecasted the burgeoning presence of “neo-soul” on the horizon in America and Britain.
Additionally, Wheeler returned to the lost art form of “immersive record art,” albeit via the CD format. Inside the accompanying booklet was a self-penned essay from Wheeler addressing the listener on social concerns and a list of recommend reading that included books from Chancelor Williams and Rupert Lewis, to name just a few. Beach of the War Goddess was a demure portent of R&B's next incarnation for the remainder of the 1990s, but managed to excel within the New Jack framework in which it was conceived.
JODECI | Diary of a Mad Band
Selected by Daryl McIntosh
If ever a group or artist dispelled the myth that there was such a thing as a sophomore jinx, Jodeci crushed this superstition with their follow-up effort to their thug love hymnal Forever My Lady, by perfecting their brand with Diary of a Mad Band. Thankfully, ignoring the mainstream critics who thumbed their noses at the youthful storytelling of less traditional love stories, Jodeci remained true to form, in both dress and attitude, and by often explicitly focusing on the more taboo subject of actual lovemaking.
If you were in your formidable years circa 1993 and experienced the heartache of a breakup, you probably committed to memory K-Ci's soulful bellowing on "Cry for You," which echoed the sentiment of a young playa, now humbled with the realization that he may have let the wrong girl slip away.
"Feenin,” which still reigns supreme as a lovemaking anthem, did everything from set the mood for Big Poppa before he made a young Queen Bee beg for “One More Chance” on their playful interlude on the classic Ready to Die album, to perhaps overpopulate our inner cities with this current generation of Millennials.
The Bad Boys of R&B's first and third albums help create one of the most prolific catalogs of the ‘90s, but Diary saw the group at their creative apex. Every ad lib seemed perfectly placed, and became the hallmark of the quartet's signature four part harmony.
Diary passes every endurance test to be called a true classic, showing a special spark three quarters of the way in, with "Won't Waste You" and "In the Meanwhile." The latter track was the formal introduction of Missy Elliot and Timberland, whose ghost production throughout the project helped separate this album, not only from amongst Jodeci's other work, but above what was then a crowded field of worthy competition.
If the now faded CD and cassette covers could talk they would shame us all by telling the tales of our early ‘90s mischief, and expose how sex ed wasn't learned in health class but in dim bedrooms, with a legendary soul group's masterpiece providing the soundtrack.
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