Happy 20th Anniversary to Jody Watley’s sixth studio album Flower, originally released March 31, 1998.
“I didn't want to make another record that felt specifically more R&B at that point,” Jody Watley confided when I spoke with her about her sixth album Flower (1998) for a Fly Global Music interview a decade ago. “I felt happy and wanted something groovy to reflect where I was, as always. I (had) wanted to make a cutting edge, international dance record, with soul and excitement, modern! But, I said, ‘perhaps you should compromise more,’ and subsequently the A&R (of Atlantic Records) had more of its way. Flower wasn't the record I wanted to make at all, but I did the best with what I was presented with.”
Flower was fraught with turmoil from its inception, but Watley turned a tense situation to her advantage. She had experience with negotiating label politicking after an eight-year stint with MCA Records—the place where she'd cut her initial four LPs. Deciding to go it alone, Watley founded her own imprint Avitone Records and issued her fifth long player Affection (1995). Reviews were strong, but sales were sluggish, a symptom of a change in the commercial climate of the time.
In the fall of 1996, at the behest of Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Watley briefly reteamed with her Shalamar groupmates Jeffrey Daniel and Howard Hewett—and LL Cool J—on Edmonds’ cover of the Shalamar gem “This Is For the Lover in You.” Edmonds’ take was chart gold and whispers of a full-blown Shalamar reunion abounded. The latter subject wasn't on the cards, but the success of “This Is For the Lover In You” likely peaked Atlantic Records’ interest in Watley. Due to their own rhythm and blues legacy, Atlantic saw the potential in the “restoration” of Watley as a “conventional hitmaker.”
In my exchange with her back in 2008, she spoke about how Atlantic promised an assertive marketing campaign and latitude to create freely with her next outlet. However, once the ink had begun to dry on the deal, Atlantic immediately changed the terms, expressing their concern that a more “tried and true” R&B route was where Watley should remain. Assuredly disappointed, she agreed to this concession, but retained a certain portion of artistic autonomy. Further, she wisely put to use the resources Atlantic had at their disposal, specifically in perusing the various songwriters and producers they had invited to work alongside her.
Watley came together with select members of Organized Noize (Ivan Matias), Masters at Work (Louie Vega, Kenny Gonzalez), Tony! Toni! Toné! (D'Wayne Wiggins and Randall Wiggins) and Groove Theory (Bryce Wilson) as well as Rahsaan Patterson, Malik Pendleton, Cassandra Lucas, Phil Galdston, Deric Angelettie, and Derrick Edmonson to get down to the business of record making. Out of all these new faces, Edmonson was the only carry over from Flower's antecedent Affection.
While it's true that the genesis of Flower had a bumpy start, the project eventually took on a joyful upswing during its creation. All of those assembled respected Watley's progressive form of soul and sought to make it accessible to the black radio format of the late 1990s. Obvious hooks are planted among the fluid funk of Flower, none of them blocking the intelligence or sexiness of the lyrical thrust of the LP.
Watley's way with a groove, whether a simmering midtempo (“Flower,” “Everything You Do”) or a punchy uptempo aimed squarely for the dancefloor (“Baby Tonight,” “I Don't Want You Back”), was second to none. “Off the Hook” functioned at both paces on the affair, becoming its launching single. It's original incarnation favors Quiet Storm posture, whereas its secondary shape—the D-Dot Remix—is that of an undeniable hip-hop banger that reunites her with one of that movement's defining voices after their inaugural partnership on “Friends” in 1989: Rakim.
There are at least four formal downtempos on Flower, all of them prepossessing, but it’s the acoustic warmth of “16” that rises above that pretty pack to become not only the best ballad on the set, but one of the standout entries in Watley's entire discography. On “16,” Watley sings for young black womanhood and captures all of the feelings of that unique, if sometimes bittersweet, journey. A year after its release on Flower, it found its way onto The Writings on the Wall (1999) as “Sweet Sixteen,” the second LP from a soon-to-be iconic girl group known as Destiny's Child.
What was meant to reposition Watley wound up as a squandered opportunity. Flower was only sanctioned for release internationally—and with not a hint of promotional muscle behind it—in late March 1998. No domestic drop date was ever provided for Flower stateside. It was a setback for the vocalist, especially given that the lead single “Off the Hook” had begun gaining traction. Atlantic and Watley parted ways and she temporarily floated the notion of halting her recording career altogether.
She brushed all of that aside and began tasking at her goal of hosting soul, modern dance and pop in one space. Her next three albums made that goal a sonic reality—Saturday Night Experience, Vol. 1 (1999), Midnight Lounge (2001) and The Makeover (2006). Though the circumstances surrounding it are storied, Flower is still one of Jody Watley's most luxe listens sure to please the faithful and intrigue the curious.