Happy 25th Anniversary to Zhané’s debut album Pronounced Jah-Nay, originally released February 15, 1994.
Most of us who came of age during the years just prior to Y2K wish the musical apex of the ‘90s had lasted forever. The emergence of innovative electronic instrumentation, which helped to mesh the best possibilities of genres like hip-hop and R&B, forever changed the musical landscape and the approach to sculpting albums that sought urban appeal.
As the decade took off, a generation of new artists were eager to push musical boundaries and blend genres. Enter the duo Zhané, who, with their minds set toward defining themselves and clearing their own musical paths, began by having a cooler name and look than the rest of their contemporaries.
The group consisted of songstresses Renée Neufville and Jean Baylor, who made it clear from the title of their debut LP Pronounced Jah-Nay that they wanted everyone to properly enunciate the name of the group that was about to reshape the sound, look, and attitude of ‘90s soul women. Zhané was inspired by combining their first names, but spelling it with a Z to add a little extra sauce.
Initially meeting as blossoming songbirds on the campus of Temple University, Neufville and Baylor would eventually link with Philadelphia native DJ Jazzy Jeff and earn a coveted spot on DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s 1991 LP Homebase. As unsigned artists, Neufville and Baylor helped add vibrant vocals to the hip-hop duo’s upbeat remake of Anita Ward’s 1979 hit “Ring My Bell.”
The exposure they earned from contributing to an album that would eventually reach platinum status helped garner the attention of another high profile hip-hop hitmaker, Keir “Kay Gee” Gist of Naughty by Nature. Continuing his hot streak that helped make Naughty by Nature one of the most popular rap groups of the early ‘90s, Gist assisted the harmony-driven tag team in creating an anthem to help close the summer of 1993.
Showing his full musical mastery, Kay Gee sampled Michael Wychoff’s 1982 hit “Looking Up to You” for the radio and club friendly single “Hey Mr. D.J.” Kay Gee’s beat provided a sound reminiscent of late ‘70s disco band Chic, that, together with the perfectly complementary vocals, created a euphoria of modern funk. The guest feature of Fam from the Rottin Razkals, a Naughty by Nature offshoot, helped solidify the song’s popularity with rap listeners, while pushing the growing subgenre of hip-hop/soul.
Zhané’s second single “Groove Thang” not only showed that the ladies had more than one hit in their repertoire, but a consistent ease and ability to soar along with the high-powered production that created party anthems like “Hip-Hop Hooray” and “O.P.P.”
The ladies chose a slower pace for their next single “Sending My Love,” with eloquent lyrics like, “If I could mail my heart / Right to you, I would / I'd pack it up, seal it tight / And I'd send it overnight” and sensual vocals that constituted arguably the sleekest all-around performance of 1994.
“Vibe,” which was an excellent showcase of Renée and Jean’s superior two-part harmony over a signature hip-hop/soul beat, further solidified the ladies as rare talents and continued the LP’s surge toward platinum sales.
By the time fans had learned how to properly and consistently pronounce Zhané, well into the spring and summer of 1994, there was a collection of individual hit records and an aptly formulated LP to the ladies’ credit. Their seemingly authentic, “around the way girl” aura helped to create memorable hip-hop collaborations including “4 More” from De La Soul’s Stakes Is High (1996) and “It’s a Party” from Busta Rhymes’ The Coming released the same year. Renée and Jean’s natural beauty and social sophistication made them highly sought-after for everything from the utterly chic to socially impactful, as their black girl magic was dispatched for everything from a cameo appearance in the video for The Notorious B.I.G.’s 1995 single “One More Chance” to being featured on the sisterhood proclamation “Freedom (Panther Theme)” from the 1995 film Panther.
Despite the fact that the duo released just one more album (1997’s Saturday Night), Zhané’s musical legacy is secure due to their nearly flawless inaugural effort that arguably represents the second great installment in the hip-hop/soul continuum, following Mary J. Blige’s 1992 debut What’s the 411?. Its harmonic tributes to ‘70s soul-queens Patrice Rushen and Roberta Flack also proved to be early exhibits of the budding neo-soul movement which undoubtedly inspired artists such as Jill Scott and India Arie, to whom they would hand the baton for the next decade.
25 years ago, Pronounced Jah-Nay provided the soundtrack for countless parties and plenty of fond memories at the epicenter of the ‘90s, cementing its place as one of the decade’s quintessential albums.