Happy 25th Anniversary to En Vogue’s Funky Divas, originally released March 24, 1992.
[Read Quentin Harrison's interview with En Vogue's Cindy Herron-Braggs here]
Two albums tipped the scales in the early 1990s to return the seat of power to America with respect to girl groups: En Vogue's Funky Divas (1992) and TLC's CrazySexyCool (1994). Both groups had successful debut albums that preceded their sophomore sets, but those first albums were immediately eclipsed by their follow-ups. In the case of the Oakland quartet En Vogue― Maxine Jones, Cindy Herron-Braggs, Dawn Robinson, and Terry Ellis―Born to Sing (1990) caused a scene upon arrival. The album was held aloft by “Hold On,” an ebon-laced New Jack groove executed with a vocal ferocity that recalled the energy of R&B female groups of the 1970s.
Born to Sing had been piloted by the producer-songwriter duo of Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy, formerly of Club Noveau. The gentlemen had also been the impetus behind founding En Vogue two years prior to Born to Sing. But was that all there was to the ladies? Four women simply singing material placed in front of them? Their second long player Funky Divas suggested that there was much more to the quartet. Though Foster and McElroy's pen and production style set the template for Funky Divas, the material was brought to life by Jones, Herron-Braggs, Robinson and Ellis. A producer is only as good as his or her artist, and En Vogue were never in short supply of personality or talent.
It was understood by the group, Foster and McElroy that a repeat performance of Born to Sing wouldn't make the grade for round two. For them to push through the din of competitive noise coming from their peer group in the R&B girl group market, they needed to innovate. Their second album saw En Vogue continue to mine the contemporary ore of the urban music landscape of the period, but they paired it with unforgettable grooves and melodies to guarantee the songs lasted past the epoch of their creation. There were also a few surprises tucked into Funky Divas too.
However, when En Vogue tapped “The Payback” (by James Brown), an R&B and hip-hop sample touchstone by 1992, it could have felt reductive, especially given that the sample had powered their inaugural charter “Hold On.” But, as always, En Vogue found a way to flip something established and make it work for them. The resulting soul sass of Funky Divas’ lead single, “My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It)” (US #2, US R&B #1, US Dance #8), became another signature hit for the group. Aesthetically, the song seamlessly straddled the medium between classic and modern soul music. “My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It)” was released on March 17, 1992, and Funky Divas arrived the following Tuesday on March 24, 1992.
The record was an immediate smash, commercially and creatively. Following “My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It),” the record produced four more singles between June 1992 and February 1993, including “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” (US #6, US R&B #1), “Free Your Mind” (US #8, US R&B #23), “Give It Up, Turn It Loose” (US #15, US R&B #16) “Love Don't Love You” (US #36, US R&B #31).
Musically and visually, En Vogue were definitely holding their own. Funky Divas evinced that mainstream R&B could continually cross over to white listeners without losing its core constituency. A prime example of this is “Free Your Mind,” one of the album’s aforementioned surprises. A searing rock number that challenged racism, sexism and other social phobias head on was all at once, smart, sexy and provocative. Its Mark Romanek directed video left a lasting impression and contributed to the song's enduring pop culture visibility long after the 1990s concluded.
Their reworking of “Something He Can Feel” as “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” was also a coup. The song was written by Curtis Mayfield and initially rendered by the actresses/vocalists Lonette McKee, Irene Cara and Dwan Smith in the 1976 cult classic Sparkle. But, it found radio affection when Aretha Franklin, controversially, delivered it on the companion soundtrack. En Vogue's version restored the song to its girl group roots and brought it forward into a new decade, reverently, but boldly. They also tackled the Mayfield-penned “Hooked On Your Love” from the same film, again, bringing the song back to its original group approach. The additional non-single tracks fared strongly too, courtesy of the bright, black pop of “This Is Your Life,” hip-hop dance music on the appropriately titled “Hip Hop Lover,” an ambitious cover of The Beatles’ “Yesterday,” and the seductive jazz funk of “Desire.”
In the end, Funky Divas was certified platinum three times over in America and moved over five million copies worldwide. Sadly, behind the scenes of the success of their second album, En Vogue was contending with internal and external pressures that plagued the group as they moved further into the 1990s. Label disputes, in-fighting, and line-up shifts buffeted the three excellent albums that came in the wake of Funky Divas: EV3 (1997), Masterpiece Theatre (2000) and Soul Flower (2004). With Soul Flower, the group welcomed Rhona Bennett―a one-time Mouseketeer, actress and Rodney Jerkins protégé―to the fold. She, along with Terry Ellis and Cindy Herron-Braggs comprise En Vogue today, and the trio is currently putting the finishing touches on their much-anticipated sixth long player, Electric Café, due for release later in the year.
Regardless of the drama that has threatened to subsume En Vogue's legacy, Funky Divas was both an affirmation of the past and (then) present of R&B music. The album still captivates audiences inside and outside of the R&B genre, and stands as a truly classic girl group record that set the standard for others to follow in the years to come.