Happy 20th Anniversary to Seal’s third studio album Human Being, originally released November 16, 1998.
Appearing unassumingly on the Space Jam soundtrack in late 1996, Seal’s rendition of the Steve Miller Band staple “Fly Like an Eagle” was recast in the singer-songwriter’s soul-pop image. Radio listeners and the record buying public took to Seal’s cover; it stormed the charts like most of his singles had since the outset of the decade.
“Fly Like an Eagle” was just one of several milestones dotting a six-year stretch that saw Seal go from street musician to a chart-topping crooner, later to be permanently associated with the decade that he rose to prominence in writ large. Despite his ascent, the singer, lyricist and musician (born Henry Olusegun Adeola Samuel) never took his eye off the artistic prize: making the best records he possibly could.
Beginning with his eponymous debut set in 1991, Seal brewed up a tasty blend of alternative soul and dance music that made it big on pop radio and in clubland spaces. Afterward, his second album Seal II (1994) rooted itself in an expansive, adult contemporary phonic that drew on world music and acoustic flavors. One of the LP’s singles, “Kiss from a Rose,” took on a life of its own when elected for inclusion on the soundtrack for Batman Forever in 1995, a year after it was sent out from Seal II as a single. All of these recordings had been produced with Trevor Horn, Seal’s close friend and mentor. He was also the man who had helped pilot material for the likes of Tina Turner, ABC, Grace Jones and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, to name a few.
It wasn’t a shock when Horn resumed his post dutifully as the birthing cycle began for Seal’s third long player, Human Being. Both were involved in pitching support talent—co-writers and musicians—for the Human Being sessions. These guests included the likes of Chris Bruce, Lisa Coleman, Anne Dudley, Earl Harvin, Wendy Melvoin, William Orbit and David Palmer. Setting aside the shared writing credits on three of its sides, the rest of Human Being was penned by Seal, who was being guided by internal and external forces.
In the ensuing years after its release, the genesis of Human Being would be egregiously (and lazily) credited to his separation from renowned model/actress Tyra Banks. While it is likely that some of the album’s emotional charge did come from their amicable parting, most of its creative cues could be traced to Seal’s reflections on living in a world consumed by violence and panic—a world in the absence of love, romantic or otherwise. Specifically, the senseless murders of reigning hip-hop titans Tupac Shakur and Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace in 1996 and 1997 respectively hit Seal hard. In this way, the album’s opener and title piece—directly inspired by the deaths of Shakur and Wallace—sets a dark, thematic tone of examining the depths of the human condition for the rest of the long player.
Sonically, Seal (with Horn by his side) fashioned an aural atmosphere that puts everything into play that he had used in his music up to this point. There were stormy, orchestral set pieces (“Human Beings,” “Colour”), trippy, electronic excursions (“Latest Craze,” “Excerpt From”) and evocative soul-pop (“State of Grace,” “When a Man Is Wrong”). And even though the most disciplined audiophile can detect when Seal grips one genre tighter than another on Human Being, in many instances, he spins these assorted styles into a unified soundscape for each track present here. This makes Human Being an absorbing experience, as its details are carefully constructed and eschew gratuitous flash.
The songwriting is adept in its literate interpretations of “love” in a personal and universal context, as “Just Like You Said” and “Still Love Remains” demonstrate. Seal also leaves room to draft stories open to elucidation. For example, is “Latest Craze” a rebuke on celebrity culture run amok or is Seal tearing down his own public image? The semi-ambiguity of the narrative for “Latest Craze” captures the truculent wanderlust possessing the singer-songwriter on these proceedings.
Another important component to the seamlessness of Human Being is Seal’s warm, broad vocal tone, able to keep pace with the ambitiousness of the music and songwriting. The singer locates that rare sweet spot between grandiosity (“No Easy Way”) and intimacy (“Princess”) that gloriously communicates an undercurrent of survival—and hope—that politely combats the nebulous intensity of the album without extinguishing it.
Stunningly, Human Being was critically exiled not long after its November 1998 rollout. Sales-wise, the record logged a respectable gold certification stateside. Given Seal’s antecedent winning streak, one could have viewed the blow delivered to the record as either unexpected or that it was “par for the course” for him to finally “stumble.”
Shamelessly, rather than try to endear the buying public to the product, Warner Bros. only allowed one commercial single (“Human Beings”) to be lifted from the LP. Promotional pressings for “Latest Craze” and “Lost My Faith” were commissioned, the latter given the music video treatment, but neither of these or their parent album were properly marketed.
In the wake of Human Being, many other accomplished recordings have come and gone for Seal in the ensuing twenty-year span. Still, the magnificence of Human Being retains a certain unprecedented scope in its willingness to explore the shadowy corners of the human spirit.