In 1991, the popular R&B landscape was undergoing a massive overhaul, especially on the group front. It was no longer just the music our parents listened to, thanks to artists such as Guy, New Edition and Boyz II Men. R&B had come barreling into the ’90s, chock full of New Jack Swing and hip hop influences. Such groups managed to craft songs that could straddle the line between new and old. Enter Jodeci and their debut album, Forever My Lady. The Southern boys hailing from Virginia and North Carolina would challenge everything we had come to expect from our male vocal groups.
Whereas acts like Boyz II Men and Hi-Five were saccharine sweet enough to impress your mom and dad, Jodeci were the guys your father warned you about. They were smooth enough to woo the ladies, yet rough enough around the edges to appeal to the guys. About the only thing that they had in common with other soul artists at the time was that like many before them, they had grown up in the church. Comprised of two sets of brothers,K-Ci, Jo-Jo, Mr. Dalvin and DeVante, the church influences were evident in K-Ci’s powerful wailing. But this was about as far as you could get from church music.
The quartet first made a slight ripple in the waters with their debut single, the uptempo “Gotta Love.” If this song would have given any indication of the trajectory was going to take, then chances are, folks didn’t expect a lot. While the song enjoyed a modest display on the music charts, the highest it climbed was to the 79th slot. Initially, it seemed that audiences weren’t ready for the ’round-the-way R&B the guys were bringing to the table. I know I wasn’t. After growing up in a household filled with the sounds of artists like Luther and Anita Baker, I wasn’t sure if I wanted my R&B to sound this way. This song left such a little impression on me that I barely even remembered that it was the first single from the album until I looked it up. For me, my Jodeci-induced frenzy didn’t kick off until the second single from the album was released.
“Forever My Lady” was released in August 1991. I remember this well because by the time school started for us a few weeks later, it was the song that all the boys chose for their school year boo-thangs. If they weren’t singing it to them in the halls, they were jotting down the lyrics on folded up notes that the girls kept near and dear to their hearts. Never mind the fact that the first line of the song was the highly un-romantic, “So you’re having my baby,” we ate it all up hook, line and sinker. It was the flip side of romance as we had come to know it. First romance, then marriage, then a baby carriage was the preferred order of things, but then here came Jodeci, acknowledging that things didn’t always happen the way we may have hoped, but it didn’t make it any less real. It was clearly the message we had all been waiting on because it was just a matter of time before the song would propel them to the top of the R&B charts, where it would rest comfortably for three weeks.
While uptempo songs such as “Play Thing” and “Xs We Share” were decent offerings, it was through their ballads that they would shine the most. Stepping away from the New Jack Swing sound that prevailed at the moment, the group’s ballads were filled with the love, the passion, the hurt and the desire that symbolized all that we wanted. Clearly Jodeci and their label realized this and learned from the success of “Forever My Lady” because the next three songs released from the album would all be ballads. “Stay,” “Come and Talk to Me” and “I’m Still Waiting” would help solidify Jodeci’s place as R&B’s next big thing. “Stay” was an exercise in ’90s sensuality, kicking off with DeVante’s sexy intro, before being overtaken by brothers K-Ci and Jo-Jo vocal tag team. By this time, I, like countless others, was a full-on Jodeci convert.
Unfortunately, we all know how this story ends. Jo-Jo, K-Ci, Mr. Dalvin and DeVante Swing went on to enjoy monumental success as a group with two more studio albums, while Jo-Jo and K-Ci would also enjoy success as a duo before crashing and burning when left to their own devices. Proving that their bad boy image was far from being falsified for the sake of record sales, drug and alcohol abuse would abound, with numerous sweaty, non-sensical public appearances to back it up. DeVante’s fall from grace would seem even more painful, given the promise the young music mogul held. Artists from his Swing Mob collective would defect, revealing years of verbal, mental and even physical abuse that left us all scratching their heads. And more recently, a purported video of him surfaced, showing a shell of the man he used to be, stumbling incoherently around a Subway sandwich shop. But regardless of the less-than-fairy tale ending, one thing is for certain: Forever My Lady changed the way many of us listened to music. R&B no longer had to be smooth to be popular. It could be rough, rugged and raw and still have heart.