Happy 25th Anniversary to CeCe Peniston’s debut album Finally, originally released January 28, 1992.
In 1992, disco’s alleged demise was a 13-year-old, caustic memory. A cultural panic fueled by anxiety over the rise of women, black and brown folks, and gays in the record business and across society, the backlash merely served as the catalyst for the transformation—not eradication—of R&B’s most durable subgenre. Disco’s pulsating glamour found a home in the underground, a post-disco and house scene nestled in the discerning spaces of Chicago, New York, Chocolate City-era D.C., and many other hubs where the faithful worshipped at the altar of the dance.
The occasional dance record did break through to the masses during the ‘80s, as the decade saw staples like Shannon’s “Let the Music Play,” Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam’s “I Wonder if I Take You Home,” and Exposé’s “Point of No Return” become multi-format hits. Turntable favorites like Raze’s “Break 4 Love” and Joyce Sims’ “All and All” were even hotter, but by 1987, something new was becoming the dominant form of black dance music for urban youth.
It was called New Jack Swing and much like disco, it introduced its own sense of fashion and a bevy of fresh faces: Keith Sweat, Guy, Pebbles, Al B. Sure!, Troop, the Good Girls, and countless others threw out one banger after another, all capturing the edginess of hip-hop and the choreographed showmanship of classic soul. Funky and infectious, they were the kind of records you and your parents could go in on around the house or in the car. It was a heavily segregated era in terms of music television and radio, however, and it wasn’t uncommon for a major R&B hit to fall on deaf ears in the pop world with a bass-heavy thud. (“Roses are Red” by the Mac Band featuring the McCampbell Brothers, for example, topped the Black Singles chart in 1988 and became a New Jack standard without even making the Billboard Hot 100.)
That’s likely why the resurgence of dance music at the dawn of the nineties took so many by surprise. Out of nowhere, it seemed that radio, school dances, and boom boxes radiated with the joy of Black Box’s “Everybody Everybody,” “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” by C&C Music Factory, and Madonna’s “Vogue,” and once again, a solid bridge was being built between R&B and dance audiences. Though house music had percolated to the rhythm of pioneers like Kym Mazelle (“Useless (I Don’t Need You Now)”) and Inner City (“Good Life”) for years, most of the young bucks who made up the period’s record buying base were tasting the flavor for the first time.
For Dayton, Ohio-born Cecilia “CeCe” Peniston, the timing couldn’t have been better. A big-voiced belter who blended disco sass and R&B sincerity, Peniston, a former Miss Black Arizona, was a perfect fit for the house-inspired dance-pop crossing over into the mainstream. After years of paying dues and honing her craft, she landed a solo deal with A&M Records and the result—1992’s Finally—was one of the best dance-soul records of the decade and the commercial peak of Peniston’s career.
It’s no secret that some of the best dance releases are clouded with a bit of anonymity but when it came to Finally, this was not the case. In the tradition of Stephanie Mills, Melba Moore, and Donna Summer, Peniston’s theater background helped give her voice—and her visual persona—a certain malleability, as evidenced by the stylistic range of her song selections and the accompanying videos. The grooves were deep and the melodies were bright, but most important to the formula was Peniston herself. From the brassy, colorful couture of the title track to that I’m-not-having-it, round the way girl realness of “Keep On Walkin’” (we all remember the neck roll she gave that brother on the basketball court), you got the message. This girl was the real deal.
Featuring top-flight production from Steve “Silk” Hurley, Felipe Delgado and Rodney K. Jackson, Daniel Abraham, Steve Lindsey, David Morales, and Jodeci’s DeVante Swing, the album has held up remarkably well over the last quarter century. You could make the case that Peniston was disco divadom reincarnated, but to utter such a cliché would be an affront to all she was and remains.
Those inimitable dance floor jams soundtracked a multitude of adolescent and young adult adventures: “We Got a Love Thang” and “Finally” skillfully melded the insistent grace of all that’s right about dance production values with grand vocals. Peniston’s clear, radio-friendly soprano pushed the tracks to the upper reaches of the Hot 100, where they shot to numbers 20 and 5, respectively. By the time they crowned the dance chart, Peniston’s standing as one of the preeminent club icons of the decade was, for better or worse, etched in stone.
Though “Lifeline” and her spirited cover of Gwen Guthrie’s “It Should Have Been You” surely kept the kids moving, the album’s soul and hip-hop undertones were equally enticing. Another hit single, the always singable “Keep on Walkin’,” was among the earliest examples of what would eventually be called hip-hop soul, while “Inside That I Cried,” “I See Love,” and “You Win, I Win, We Lose” showcased the emotive, spacious side of Peniston’s delivery.
But it was the mid-tempo Quiet Storm sensation “Crazy Love” that stood out as the album’s entrancing center. With its sexiness and sense of anticipation, the song shined a light on Peniston as a prime interpreter who was no off-the-shelf commodity. This was a singer who felt the song, and you felt her truth.
Powered by five hit singles, Finally went gold, landing at number 13 R&B and number 70 pop. Seeking to broaden her sound, Peniston issued two decidedly soul-oriented albums—1994’s Thought Ya Knew and 1996’s Movin’ On—that showcased the grit and power of her voice, but failed to capture the across-the-board hold of her blockbuster debut. She maintained a presence in the R&B market with the charters “In the Mood,” “I’m Not Over You,” and “Movin’ On,” but the dance diva tiara proved difficult for her to relinquish. That’s a shame, because as far as soul singers of the last few decades go, Peniston can easily riff with the best of them.
Today, Peniston continues to thrill loyal fans around the world. From clubs and cruises to gay pride festivals, she still kills it, sounding and looking as fresh and youthful as she did during her major-label heyday. The 2014 single “Nothing Can Stop Me” is the sound of a seasoned voice that’s only gotten better with time, the manifestation of the lyrics’ uplifting message. Peniston still sings with love.
Looking back, the fact that Finally reached a level of success rarely seen with a dance-based release is only part of its wonder. Few artists can say they crafted an anthem for a generation, and even fewer can say they built an album of equal merit around it. Finally isn’t just good music, it’s a statement that dance music doesn’t need to sell its soul to make a connection.
After all, it was a love thang.