Happy 25th Anniversary to Lenny Kravitz’s sophomore album Mama Said, originally released April 2, 1991.
It’s never been a secret that genre-blurring singer, songwriter, and musician Lenny Kravitz has sincere admiration for his musical past. When the New York-born, Los Angeles-raised talent released his gold-certified debut album Let Love Rule through Virgin Records in 1989, the biracial, dreadlocked performer reintroduced the pop music landscape to the prolific, one-man-show (the last being megastar Prince just to clarify) dipped in a Sixties-themed vibe. Of course, something had changed when Kravitz, frequently told by record executives that his music wasn’t “black enough,” came back and released his second album Mama Said on April 2, 1991.
Just the year prior, his penmanship credits on superstar Madonna’s erotically suggestive “Justify My Love” earned him a Number One pop single. The artist formerly known as Romeo Blue had just come off tour from promoting Let Love Rule, so he was seemingly well on his way to superstardom (or so we thought). His highly-publicized marriage to actress Lisa Bonet, known to television audiences as the free-spirited Denise Huxtable on both The Cosby Show and A Different World, was beginning to deteriorate, leaving a devastated Kravitz to find ways to deal with the heartache.
His rising fame and success didn’t make things any better. Kravitz even shared with Billboard.com in April of 2012 that he was mildly depressed, causing him to go into a brief period of hibernation. Still, with Mama Said, Kravitz, a love child of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, poured his respect and feelings on wax. The only problem was, like the slew of major record companies that continuously turned down his demo tape, the music critics were equally as reluctant to really understand and appreciate his musical integrity.
Writing for Rolling Stone in April of 1991, Elysa Gardner declared that Mama Said was “a rather disjointed album that lacks freshness and distinction.” Six days prior, Entertainment Weekly’s Jim Farber cosigned, insisting Kravitz “dedicated his career to slavishly imitating others.” These assessments of Kravitz’s sophomore effort considerably ran a parallel line with the cover art shot by photographer James Colderaro, presenting the instrumentalist in vintage consignment shop-purchased garb and accessories turning to the left with his thick locks floating in mid-air.
The problem with the majority of the reviews of Mama Said is how the opinions actually overlooked the raw emotion the then 26-year-old Kravitz displays on record about six minutes shy of an hour. Here is a man baring his soul without being too revealing about his personal life. The sounds reflect the artist born to late actress Roxie Roker, who portrayed Helen Willis on The Jeffersons, and Sy Kravitz, a Jewish NBC television producer, working through conflict and his feelings about love. Furthermore, he’s an incredible, multi-talented performer who takes no issue with showing respect for his sonic forefathers, while determining how to repurpose those engagements with his vinyl collection or radio dial.
Mama Said kicks off with “Fields of Joy,” opening with a folky acoustic riff backing Kravitz’s psychedelic vocals resembling post-Beatles John Lennon. Guitarist Slash contributes some funk/rock shredding to boot. The Guns ‘N Roses member has a recurring role, joining Kravitz and Earth, Wind and Fire’s horn section, The Phenix Horns, on the Led Zeppelin-esque “Always On the Run.” “Stand By My Woman” is one of the album’s more remorseful moments, allowing Kravitz to be vulnerable over gospel-inspired pianos and organs.
“It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over” earned Kravitz his highest pop chart position, peaking at Number Two. The single marries his Curtis Mayfield-inspired falsetto with chunky Stax Records guitars and a lush MFSB-flavored (possibly Love Unlimited Orchestra) string arrangement. “More Than Anything In This World,” like many of Kravitz’s latter recordings, presents his knack for laying down echoing vocals, specifically with an ambient Sunday morning feel. “What Goes Around Comes Around” revisits Mayfield and could’ve easily been placed on the Superfly soundtrack.
Kravitz channels the blues on “The Difference Is Why” and “When the Morning Turns to Night.” “Stop Draggin’ Around” pours Jimi Hendrix’s guitar effects underneath a harmonious Sly Stone groove and vocal arrangement. The lullaby-resembling “Flowers for Zoe” is a tender ditty Kravitz sings to his daughter, now an incredible young actress and singer herself. A mesmerizing reprise of “Fields of Joy” comes off as a creeping, four-minute acid trip. The echoing “All I Ever Wanted,” co-written by Sean Lennon, is an auditory rendition of an empathetic Kravitz on bended knees, filtering Al Green’s spirit through Robert Plant’s screeching pipes.
On the concerned “What the Fuck Are We Saying?,” Kravitz takes crash courses in studying Stevie Wonder’s lyricism on the 1973 Grammy-winning LP Innervisions and Brian Eno’s (or maybe Kraftwerk’s) synthesizer methodology. “Butterfly” closes out Mama Said, resembling singer-songwriters like Jim Croce, Joni Mitchell, John Denver and even Lennon again. Counter to music critics’ assessments, Mama Said acts as musical therapy, allowing Kravitz to sort out conflicts through song by heavily relying on digging through the crates without sampling.
In the Chicago Tribune’s review that year, writer Greg Kot disparagingly stated, “Until Kravitz begins transforming his influences instead of just copying them, he’ll remain a promising but minor artist.” Borrowing those said musical elements, however, clearly worked to Kravitz’s advantage. Mama Said became the entertainer’s first Top 40 album on the Billboard 200, peaking at #39. The album was certified platinum in the U.S., eventually selling over three million units worldwide.
Mama Said was rereleased as a Deluxe Edition on June 5, 2012. The repackaged collection is a double album including 21 bonus cuts of demos, remixes, instrumentals, and live versions recorded in Japan and The Netherlands, proving that Kravitz is the type of artist who likes to have a lot to work with before settling on a final product.
In the years since Mama Said’s release, Kravitz has become one of the most sought-after and iconic musicians of his generation. He’s a modern legend who continues to release dynamic, critically acclaimed LPs, act in films like Lee Daniels’ The Butler and The Hunger Games, and even manages a massively successful design firm, Kravitz Designs. Kravitz made history by earning the Grammy Award for “Best Male Rock Vocal Performance” four years in a row between 1999 and 2002. He’s still the only solo artist to accomplish this feat.
While Mama Said may not necessarily be Kravitz’s crowning moment in the studio and for record retailers, it definitely set the tone for what was to come for Kravitz down the line. One thing that’s not up for debate is that Kravitz is a student of music who takes his craft and admiration for his predecessors seriously, and this can be heard across the entirety of Mama Said.