Happy 30th Anniversary to Sade’s third studio album Stronger Than Pride, originally released April 5, 1988.
When most people think of ‘80s music, the first artists that usually come to mind are Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, and Whitney Houston, to name a few. While these legends rightfully earned heavy airplay on Top 40 radio, there was an English-bred quartet sneaking their way up the Billboard charts despite the stiff competition. Sade (pronounced “shah-day”) became a household name with an ultra-smooth fusion of soul, funk, and world music best enjoyed on satin sheets. Interestingly, their 1988 classic Stronger Than Pride was recorded at a time when Sade was learning about the unexpected costs of their international stardom.
After the runaway success of Diamond Life (1984) and Promise (1985), Sade Adu became reluctant to participate in interviews—particularly those revolving around her personal life—after having her words taken out of context. Desperate to feed their scandal-hungry readership, the tabloids falsely reported that the reclusive superstar abruptly went offstage because of a broken romance, depression, and substance abuse. “They like to think of me being lovesick,” the Nigerian-British songbird told Jet in 1988. “We had been touring for four or five months, and I was just exhausted…I never left the stage saying, ‘Hang on to your love. I’ve lost mine.’”
Nonetheless, the band retreated to The Bahamas and France for some much-deserved R&R, and in the outpouring of creativity that followed, Sade lovingly crafted one of their most ambitious efforts despite its modest album title.
Album opener “Love Is Stronger Than Pride” has an air of dreamy melancholy, capturing just the right amount of pathos in the torment of being in a too-good-to-leave, too-bad-to-stay relationship. “I won’t pretend I’m good at forgiving / But I can’t hate you, though I have tried,” Adu sings, with that signature morning-after rasp in her voice. “I still really, really love you / Love is stronger than pride.” It’s as if I’ve been pulled right into Levon Parian’s album artwork—standing beside her with my feet buried in powder-soft sand as she gazes at the sun-drenched shoreline in virtual solitude.
True to its title, “Paradise” basks in the sun with a piña colada in hand as Sade’s promises of devotion are delicately carried by Paul Denman’s smooth bass ripples, Andrew Hale’s pool of warm keyboards, and Stuart Matthewman’s jazzy guitar licks. Not only is it considered one of the band’s signature songs, but it also coasted to #1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot R&B chart when Michael Jackson’s Bad crowded the airwaves and music charts.
Released as the third single, “Nothing Can Come Between Us” is a smokin’ slab of reggae-inflected funk that silences those who believed Sade were merely “glorified elevator music.” The highlight is in Adu and Matthewman’s joyful vocals near the 3:24 mark; as the song fades to black, their voices blend sweetly like two lovers running toward the beach.
Next up, Sade teams with renowned English composer Nick Ingman on the acoustic-kissed “Haunt Me.” It’s up there as one of the album’s strongest moments, combining lush strings, tense piano, and an exceptional vocal performance by Sade. The multi-tracked vocals at the 2:50 point are nothing short of chill-inducing. When Sade is on, she’s as good as it gets.
“Turn My Back on You” mostly serves as a continuation of the pure, unconditional love we heard on “Paradise.” Admittedly, the song doesn’t go anywhere beyond its “To turn my back on you / Now would you turn your back on me” chorus, but the band does such a superb job of staying in the pocket that it soared to #12 on the U.S. Billboard Hot R&B chart.
It’s no surprise the album’s unquestioned highlight feels as though it was airlifted right off Promise. “Keep Looking,” co-written by Andrew Hale, shines for its masterful arrangement and provocative ambiguity. Musically, it practically hangs in the air like mist with island-flavored hand drums, percolating bass notes, and sweet flurries of jazz flute. But it’s more than this. Scratch beneath the surface and its lyrics of responding to adversity with resilience and determination sound like something you’d hear during a Sunday morning sermon. “Some will tell you that you’re wrong / You do it all the wrong way,” Adu sings. “Some will tell you that you’re wrong / That you don’t know the way.” Hearing those words— especially as a person of color with strong Christian beliefs—gives the song an extra jolt of purpose. However, there are no overt spiritual references, so the listener can fill in the gaps however they see fit.
Sometimes a song is tainted by its placement on the album and such is the case for “Clean Heart.” The melody isn’t particularly strong—which is a shame given the dynamic talent involved—but Sade’s voice is lovely and its cinematic lyrics display the band’s ability to paint genuinely unique pictures.
Following the somber “Clean Heart” is the Latin pulse of “Give It Up.” Skillfully paced for the dance floor, Sade’s come-hither timbre straddles vulnerability and confidence where her urges of “Surrender your love / Surrender your love to me” are no longer a request, it’s a command—one that I’m sure many men (myself included) would be all-too-eager to follow. And if you’re not already on the dance floor by the time those smooth sax riffs kick in around the 1:40 point, then folks may start looking at you suspiciously.
Sade recruits another outside collaborator for the penultimate track, “I Never Thought I’d See the Day.” Leroy Osbourne (an in-demand singer/songwriter for artists such as Altered Images, Wham!, and Rick Astley) allows this quiet synth-ballad to seethe with bittersweet regret and vulnerability. “I wish you could shelter me,” Adu sings, her voice evaporating like water on Arizona asphalt. “Shelter me now / I need a miracle / And I never thought I’d see the day.” Despite its lesser-known status, “I Never Thought I’d See the Day” is a model example of the power that music can hold.
Rounding out the album is “Siempre Hay Esperanza,” a seductive instrumental that allows Adu to exit stage right and give her oft-overlooked trio of band members time to soak up the spotlight. Every city-lights-at-night guitar lick, every liquid sax note, and every crystalline keyboard tone is pristinely layered and perfectly timed. Film trivia: This song served as a steamy backdrop for Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin’s on-screen romance in the 1989 erotic thriller Sea of Love, creating a vibe so intoxicating it’s a mystery how anyone who listens to it can remain fully clothed.
Three decades have passed, and Sade hasn’t lost a single ounce of their power or relevancy. While most R&B/Soul acts pursued the cutting-edge and street credibility in the late ‘80s and beyond, this London-bred group rooted their stories of pleasure and pain in cool jazz, Latin funk, and quiet storm R&B, which likely played a role in the conception of anyone under the age of 30.
What’s even more fascinating is how many people still think Sade is just a solo artist, not a band. For all of Sade Adu’s musical gifts and runway-gorgeous looks, music lovers know that Stronger Than Pride, like all their albums, was a collaborative effort by a group of musicians who are enormously talented and have the utmost respect for their craft.
Happy birthday, Stronger Than Pride! 30 looks good on you.