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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 [Below] | PART 2
JANET JACKSON | Control
Selected by Quentin Harrison
Janet Jackson’s third solo record arrived on the heels of a pair of precocious teen soul albums (1982’s Janet Jackson and 1984’s Dream Street). Nothing was particularly wrong with them, but the albums weren’t totally in her own voice. Jackson needed a sound to properly stage her emotional growth into a young woman. Enter the Minneapolis production magi James Harris III and Terry Lewis. Working with Jackson, they crafted an album that secured her musical (and personal) independence.
Control was one of the defining “black blockbuster records” of the 1980s. Unlike her brother’s Thriller LP (1982), Tina Turner’s Private Dancer (1984), Prince’s Purple Rain (1984) or Whitney Houston’s 1985 eponymous debut, Control didn’t dilute its modern R&B aesthetic for a crossover (read: white) audience. Said crossover audience's whitelash toward disco’s “thumpa, thumpa” at the end of the 1970s dictated the response within black music culture of the early 1980s. Jackson’s Control signposted the cultural shift of R&B re-entering the public consciousness without guilt about its blackness and kept the attention of listeners on both sides of the racial spectrum.
With its usage of hip-hop flavored funk (“Nasty”) coupled with black pop (“You Can be Mine,” “When I Think of You”), Control bridged the gap into the unapologetically urban “New Jack Swing era.” While not a New Jack record in the purest sense, that honor went to Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989), Control predicted the bold new sound due to take shape for the remainder of the decade and beyond.
KEITH SWEAT | Make It Last Forever
Selected by Steven E. Flemming, Jr.
Every time I hear Keith Sweat’s seminal 1987 debut Make It Last Forever, I chuckle and think back to my mom buying it for me—on vinyl!—when it was at the peak of its powers. At once old school and nouveau chic, Sweat, a one-time stockbroker, was a critical figure in laying the foundation of New Jack Swing. With the help of Guy’s Teddy Riley, the singer managed to weave his rubbery tenor around a collection of shuffling synths and romantic lyrics that sounded like nothing else upon its release. I had not a clue what the songs were about, but those tracks and hooks were otherworldly and purely hypnotic.
Bold and decidedly masculine, Make It Last Forever was entirely void of filler. It’s pretty much a greatest hits set all on its own: “I Want Her,” “Something Just Ain’t Right,” “Don’t Stop Your Love,” and the title duet with Jacci McGhee became massive R&B hits, while “How Deep is Your Love,” “Right and a Wrong Way” and a cover of the Dramatics’ “In the Rain” resonated as late-night radio favorites. What you had was an entire album that made a mark in a time when most artists, particularly in R&B, were driven by singles and videos geared toward the moment.
Not surprisingly, Sweat emerged as one of the only artists closely associated with the New Jack era to sustain a career long after it fizzled. With Make It Last Forever, he minted a signature sound and image, an enduring flash of gentlemanly style and heart-on-the-sleeve courting (or begging, depending on who was listening) that women adored and men sought to emulate.
It makes sense that today he is right at home, amid songs of love, on his hit iHeartRadio show The Sweat Hotel. There’s no better place for a premiere balladeer.
Pebbles | Pebbles
Selected by Steven E. Flemming, Jr.
Perri “Pebbles” Reid has often recalled having a specific vision for her debut project when she met the powers that be at MCA Records. When you spin her 1987 debut, it shows. Pebbles was that rare late ‘80s album that, despite employing an army of producers that included the Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson and L.A. Reid and Babyface, was fully realized and cohesive in all its sleek, fly girl realness. It’s easy for an artist to get lost in a release helmed by a variety of hands, but Pebbles’ personality broke through and stood firm against that oh-so-funky backdrop.
In the 30 years since she pulled up in her Benz, most have forgotten that at the time she was one of only a handful of female R&B artists at the top of the pop charts. On the strength of the era-defining anthems “Girlfriend” and “Mercedes Boy” (and the sleeper hit “Do Me Right”), the album went platinum and set a template of sorts for many dance-oriented female singers to follow.
Like her cousin Cherrelle, Pebbles had the kind of voice that was distinct not for force, but for its sweetness and ability to tell stories. (Just revisit the two of them together on the 1990 classic “Always,” and you’ll get the drift.) Deeper album cuts such as “Two Hearts” “Slip Away,” and “Take Your Time” added to the fun, and are as enjoyable today as they were in years long gone. Nobody could deny she knew her way around a song.
In her own way, Pebbles helped push New Jack Swing to center stage for the ladies, something for which she doesn’t get too much credit. It’s even clearer looking back—especially as female artists struggle to last past a single or two these days—that she was the total package, as confident, fierce and sexy as she was musically engaging.
A gem of its day, this one’s long overdue for a deluxe reissue.
AL B. SURE! | In Effect Mode
Uptown/Warner Bros. (1988)
Selected by Justin Chadwick
Though more than a few (million) ladies swooned for him and made their boyfriends and husbands secretly envious in the late ‘80s, don’t let Al B. Sure!’s heartthrob good looks, romantic charisma, and exclamation mark adorned stage moniker fool you. The man crafted a bevy of amazing songs that stand as some of the New Jack Swing era’s finest, and it all began with 1988’s In Effect Mode.
Emerging less than a year after his first formal work as a contributing vocalist on his Uptown labelmates Heavy D & the Boyz’ debut album Living Large, his debut LP showcases an irresistible coupling of his falsetto crooning set atop melodic, beat and synth heavy soundscapes, as best evidenced on classic jams “Nite and Day,” “Rescue Me,” “Off on Your Own (Girl),” and the Teddy Riley produced “If I’m Not Your Lover.” "I like to call it progressive R&B," Sure declared to the Los Angeles Times shortly after the album’s release. "The music is hip-hop dance, with hip-hop beats and nice melodies. It's warm, soothing kind of music, a little bit more up-tempo than ballads."
Another standout is his interpretation of Roberta Flack’s 1973 hit single “Killing Me Softly,” recorded nearly a decade before the Fugees’ rendition catapulted them—and their dynamic soulstress/emcee Lauryn Hill—to the far reaches of superstardom.
Hip-hop heads and Native Tongues aficionados are well aware that Sure! was reverentially namechecked by the late great Phife Dawg on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Oh My God” from their 1993 gem Midnight Marauders: “My man Al B. Sure!, he’s in effect mode.” And this album is still very much in effect nearly three decades later.
GUY | Guy
Selected by Chris Lacy
By the turn of the decade from the ‘80s to the ‘90s, Harlem-born producer Teddy Riley had steadily built a solid fanbase in America with dance classics like Keith Sweat’s “I Want Her,” Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid,” and Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative.” He became a household name with Guy bandmates Aaron Hall and Timmy Gatling (later replaced by Aaron’s brother, Damion) on their self-titled 1988 opus.
Inspired by Motown soul, James Brown funk, and Prince’s studio wizardry, there are snippets of the new jack sound that snap, crackle, and pop. The scorching trifecta of “Groove Me,” “Teddy’s Jam,” and “I Like” (all of them reaching the Top 5 on the R&B charts) are liable to inspire head-bobbing and hip-shaking motions of approval with Aaron Hall’s smooth vocals capturing the ultra-cool spirit of Uncle Charlie Wilson. “You Can Call Me Crazy” (originally intended for R&B singer Al B. Sure!) is just as club-ready as it was back in ‘88. Legend has it that “Spend the Night” was one of Michael Jackson’s favorite songs, landing Riley an opportunity to co-produce the King of Pop’s underrated masterpiece, Dangerous, in 1991.
Only three songs (“Don’t Clap… Just Dance,” “Piece of My Love,” and “Goodbye Love”) run past the five-minute mark, keeping the album at a reasonable length and enhancing the poppier material. Guy was the trio’s career pinnacle as each subsequent release sold fewer copies, but for a brief period, they were one of the most popular bands in the world.
BOBBY BROWN | Don’t Be Cruel
Selected by Justin Chadwick
Though Bobby Brown’s public persona has been skewered—in some cases deservedly, in other instances unfairly—over the past few decades amidst his fair share of trials, tribulations, and tragedies, his musical legacy is firmly cemented. A founding member and key driving force behind New Edition’s ascendance in the early to mid ‘80s, the ambitious Brown seemingly always had his eyes cast toward solo stardom, as BET’s recently aired The New Edition Story alludes to at great lengths.
Hence, it likely came as no surprise when Brown exited the group to fly solo in early 1986 after appearing on their first three albums. The first manifestation of his newfound professional independence surfaced later that year in the form of his solid, if largely unforgettable, debut effort King of Stage. In the wake of the album’s tepid reception, Brown upped his game and elevated his music in a monumental way for his fantastic 1988 follow-up LP Don’t Be Cruel, largely due to his decision to team up with the golden songwriting/production duo of Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and L.A. Reid. In a calculated move to get bodies and wallets into the record stores, MCA Records released Brown’s sophomore album on the same day that the label released New Edition’s equally superb Heart Break LP, though Don’t Be Cruel proved to be the more pervasive commercial behemoth.
Rather remarkably, the first five tracks sequenced on the album—representing more than half of Don’t Be Cruel’s full-length cuts—became smash singles, with four of them (“Every Little Step,” “Roni,” “Rock Wit’cha,” and the title track) written and produced by Babyface and Reid. Co-written and produced by Brown and Gene Griffin, and bolstered by contributions by Teddy Riley and his Guy bandmate Aaron Hall, “My Prerogative” served as Brown’s grand proclamation of his autonomy, free from the confines of others’ expectations. Though the other singles fared well on the charts, “My Prerogative” was the only one that captured the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100.
Don’t Be Cruel sold millions, while becoming one of the seminal recordings of the New Jack Swing paradigm and proving to his former New Edition brethren that there was indeed plenty of success to be found in going it alone.
HEAVY D & THE BOYZ | Big Tyme
Selected by Daryl McIntosh
The awkwardness of being a teenager was often easier if you were fortunate enough to have that one really cool friend who could do anything from charm an extra dessert from your grandmother, silver tongue a hall-pass from the school secretary, or break the barrier between you and your high school crush. Well, during his career, Heavy D appeared to be that dude, the one who made everything seem fresh once he stepped out and gave it a shot, while others thought it was cooler to follow the norms of the time.
As the only rap group signed to Uptown Records, while the label was fully committed to Teddy Riley’suptempo sound that was redefining R&B music, Heavy D & the Boyz, led by the overweight lover, embraced the signature sound of the label and became early ambassadors of hip-hop to major radio and television audiences.
The group’s sophomore album Big Tyme pretty much checks off every box needed for an album to rock a party in1989, beginning with the first track “We Got Our Own Thang” produced by Teddy Riley, who, in his brilliance, constructed the perfect song that allowed Heavy D & The Boyz to unapologetically showcase their devotion to proving that partying was at the core of hip-hop culture.
Arguably one the best tracks produced by group’s in house DJ/producer Eddie F, “You Ain’t Heard Nuttin Yet” anchors the album as a force among its hip-hop contemporaries, along with “Girlz, They Love Me”, produced by hip-hop royalty Marley Marl. “Somebody for Me,” featuring label mate and Mount Vernon, NY neighbor Al B. Sure!, confused radio DJs still skeptical of hip-hop’s crossoverappeal, by blending in perfectly with the smash hits that rounded out their afternoon and evening set list.
Eddie F’s other fine work on “More Bounce,” along with Heavy D’s charisma, and the obvious group chemistry, make Big Tyme not only a standout of the New Jack Swing genre, but an album that proved hip-hop’s marketability without exploitation. Nearly 30 years later, it remains an album to be enjoyed by the entire family.
TROOP | Attitude
Selected by Justin Chadwick
Though possessed with musical gifts all their own, the Pasadena, California-bred quintet Troop also exhibited an uncanny penchant for surrounding themselves with top-notch creative talent in the early phases of their career. Their stellar, self-titled 1988 debut album included contributions from O’Jays legend Eddie Levert, his late son Gerald, and Chuckii Booker (who just so happens to appear in this feature directly below.)
The younger Levert and Booker also featured on their even more impressive follow-up LP Attitude, which is also notable for formally introducing the world to the production work of the now-acclaimed soundsmith Dallas Austin on three tracks (“My Music,” “My Love,” and the Jackson 5 cover “All I Do is Think of You”). What’s more, Trent Reznor—whose band Nine Inch Nails released their debut album Pretty Hate Machine one week after Attitude—served as a recording engineer on a few of the album’s tracks.
Famous collaborators aside, the central driving forces behind Attitude’s undeniable appeal are frontman Steven Russell Harts’ impassioned vocals and his colleagues’ emotive harmonies, as best evidenced on the aforementioned ballad “All I Do Is Think of You,” the anthem of eternal affection “I Will Always Love You,” the uplifting ode to seeking true love “Spread My Wings,” and the funk-infused jam “Another Lover.”
Released in 1992, Troop’s third album Deepa provided a rewarding bookend to the group’s terrific trio of initial recordings, with Attitude still their finest accomplishment to date.
CHUCKII BOOKER | Chuckii
Selected by Steven E. Flemming, Jr.
Amazingly, Chuckii Booker’s brief time in the sun as a New Jack hit maker isn’t talked about much today. Though he released just two albums—1989’s Chuckii and 1992’s Nice ‘n Wiild—each featured major R&B hits and hinted at a wonderfully talented personality with much to offer. Chuckii in particular was a high point in the New Jack movement, demonstrating that Booker was a multi-hyphenate on par with Angela Winbush, Teena Marie, or any other artist who did the sonic heavy lifting when it came to their output.
“Turned Away,” an unforgettable hit from the summer of 1989, stands as one of the best New Jack singles of all time. Sparse and beautifully timeless, it’s representative of the album—a patchwork of warm, synth-based tracks and clean harmonies reminiscent of work from fellow singer-instrumentalist Kashif’s hallmark productions. An expressive singer, Booker infused “Touch,” “Let Me Love U,” “Oh Lover” and the successful “(Don’t U Know) I Love U” with a youthful energy as endearing as his dimpled, camera-ready smile. It seemed he was destined for the big time.
Instead, he found life as a prolific musical director and touring musician, working with legends including Janet Jackson, Tina Turner, and Lionel Richie, who he still tours with to this very day. And while he produced hits for everyone from Troop (“Spread My Wings”) to Winbush herself (“Treat U Rite”), there will always be something about that first album, a nod to a simpler time in soul music, that’s pure comfort.
You can’t help but wonder where a solo career would have taken Booker. And hopefully it’s not too late to find out.
BABYFACE | Tender Lover
Selected by Justin Chadwick
At the risk of stating the obvious, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, along with his professional partner Antonio “L.A.” Reid, figures prominently throughout our New Jack Swing tribute. Indeed, his unparalleled songwriting prowess has touched many souls, boosted many careers, and garnered many of the shiniest awards.
But lest we allow his contributions for others to overshadow his own impressive body of recordings, here’s one of his ten solo albums that will immediately jog your memory: Tender Lover. Exuding old-school romance and chivalry in abundance, Babyface’s sophomore LP is a masterclass in sophisticated new jack soul, propelled by the melodic, midtempo jams “It’s No Crime,” Tender Lover,” and “My Kinda Girl,” coupled with the smooth ballads “Whip Appeal” and “Soon as I Get Home.”
And with the release of Return of the Tender Lover in 2015, Mr. Edmonds proved once again that decades into the game, he’s still as charming and adept of a songwriter as ever. Not that this comes as a surprise to anyone.
Proceed to: PART 2