Happy 25th Anniversary to Mint Condition’s second studio album From the Mint Factory, originally released October 5, 1993.
The '90s remain a revered time for R&B fans, and the adoration stems from more than just nostalgia. The decade saw the rise of a deep pool of talent—from solo acts to groups, producers to songwriters. Yet some of the most remarkable music of the era came from a less-populated niche in the genre: bands.
The two bands that gained acclaim from fans and critics alike were Tony! Toni! Toné! and Mint Condition. Both acts are recognized as legends today. But in October of 1993, Mint Condition was still a fairly new name to the masses, while Tony! Toni! Tone! were three albums into their run. Yet any doubts about Mint Condition's staying power were put to rest with the release of From the Mint Factory.
Mint Condition hailed from Minneapolis, the same city that bred Prince as well as Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Fittingly, the band added to the legacy built by its predecessors by centering its efforts on musicality. Mint Condition didn't shun the trends of the day, but with their instrumentation they built upon genres other than R&B. This diversity in sound helped the band advance its career, and R&B as a whole, with its sophomore effort.
In 1993, R&B was starting to transition from the New Jack Swing style crafted by Teddy Riley. For years, the upbeat, hip hop-influenced sound permeated through many songs—even without Riley's involvement. For evidence, look no further than Mint Condition's 1991 debut. Meant to Be Mint boasted several songs that can be played behind hits from Guy and Bobby Brown, including "Are You Free" and "She's a Honey."
Mint Condition didn't totally abandon New Jack Swing on its follow-up effort, as shown by the album's first full song titled "Nobody Does It Betta." The track features drum patterns and orchestra hits that are emblematic of Riley's sound. Front man Stokley Williams shows off his range on the song. He's one man, but displays the vocal force of a full group as he pulls off falsettos, harmonies and booming vocal runs. Williams’ singing combines with the play of his bandmates to form a feel-good song worthy of being the album's first single.
Yet the band made it clear that it didn't depend on New Jack Swing. A prime example is "Devotion," a slow number that breaks from the club-ready tunes that mark Riley's sonic blueprint. The song is less than a minute-long, but it lasts long enough to show the skill of keyboardist Larry Waddell. His chord progression is moving from start to finish, as it shifts the song's mood from gloom to bliss. Waddell's performance reminds listeners that Mint Condition's music is rousing even when the tempo slows down.
"Devotion" leads into a ballad that further establishes the band's versatility. The following song is "Someone to Love" and it's punctuated by jazzy saxophone play from Jeff Allen. His flourishes pop up often behind Williams’ vocals, creating emotive moments on what's mainly a mellow song.
"Someone to Love" sports some jazz influence, but "Fidelity" is close to a full departure from R&B. The song is powered by furious guitar play that would have been expected more from Nirvana than an R&B act. Yet, the song sounds anything but forced, which is a testament to Mint Condition's artistry. The song's arrangement is as captivating as any number on the album, and Williams sings with the same vibrancy for which he is known.
With songs like "Fidelity," Mint Condition showed that it wasn't bound to R&B. When the band took part in the genre's trends, it was a choice rather than a necessity. But nonetheless, From the Mint Factory included songs that took on R&B traditions and enhanced them. The best example comes in the form of the LP's second single: "U Send Me Swingin'."
Like many '90s R&B songs, "U Send Me Swingin' " features a drum pattern that a group can two-step to in unison. If you need a visual, picture a slower version of Senegal's pregame dance during the World Cup. In addition to the trademark drums of the era, the song includes harmonies that were expected of vocal groups. Yet as the song takes on traits of R&B at the time, it still stands out from the pack thanks to Williams. His vocals are commanding as he pulls off notes and runs that can be matched by few.
"U Send Me Swingin' " shows off the power of Williams’ voice, but the musicians beside him play with just as much force and they prove it on the song "So Fine." The track features guitar riffs that'll make you scrunch your face up like the smell of spoiled food. The drum and keyboard contributions have great effect on the song, while amplifying the peaks and valleys in Williams’ temperament. Williams sings with a lot of passion, which makes it impressive that the play of his bandmates can give off just as much energy as he does.
This combination is what gives Mint Condition their magic. Their music captures an emotion and evokes it from listeners like few other acts can. If fans aren't enthralled by the sound of the music, they get reeled in by the lyrics. The words Williams sings are often sentimental in a way that isn't trite, but rather appropriate for the song's atmosphere. These elements help to make From the Mint Factory a compelling album.
The LP produced a hit single in "U Send Me Swingin'," which reached #2 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop charts and cracked the Top 40. Yet From the Mint Factory as a whole wasn't a commercial breakthrough, as it peaked at #104 on the Billboard 200. The album may lack the stats held by other great '90s projects, but that doesn't reflect the album's quality.
On From the Mint Factory, Mint Condition struck a balance between tradition and experimentation. The feat is akin to walking a tightrope, and the thread that held the band upright is its musicality. The band members' performances on the album have the range and fervor of a live set. As a result, From the Mint Factory cemented a reputation for the band that has made fans consistently flock to their concerts over 20 years after the album's release. I'd say this devotion and longevity make up for any sales that the band missed out on.