The key to Jodeci, as K-Ci & JoJo’s output has shown us, wasn’t K-Ci Hailey, nor was it his brother JoJo, surprisingly. They have great, great R&B voices, JoJo’s so creamy-smooth and his brother’s stupendously gritty, a grits and gravy pair. But it wasn’t their singing that made Jodeci so undeniably great, no; it was DeVanté Swing—or, more to the point, his production. Jodeci was a group of its time, for its time, and the thanks for that can largely go to DeVanté’s mold-breaking hip-hop-soul touch behind the boards.
Remember the time with me: it was 1991. Michael Jackson could still get away with calling himself the King of Pop. Mariah Carey’s debut was still ruling the world. L.A. Reid and Babyface were the producers du jour, making sexy, of-the-moment tracks for the likes of Karyn White, Bobby Brown, and Whitney Houston (before they were, you know, Bobby and Whitney). Hip-hop was hot as ever—N.W.A.’s Efil4zaggin became the first hardcore rap record to hit #1 on the Billboard album chart—but a whole lot of nobody was breaching the gap between the hip-hop and R&B audiences, until along came André Harrell and his upstart Uptown Records. Harrell signed Heavy D. and the Boyz and Father MC to make poppier rap records that could cross over to a broader audience, along with old-school loverman Christopher Williams (whose single “I’m Dreamin’” from the landmark film New Jack City quickly shot to #1 on the R&B singles chart), but frankly, those weren’t his important artists.
No, the gems in the Uptown crown were quickly revealed to be an around-the-way-girl from the boogie-down Bronx being shepherded by Harrell’s protégé, Sean “Puffy” Combs, and an R&B quartet with southern roots and an urban edge. The music made by both Mary J. Blige and Jodeci was termed “hip-hop-soul” by their label (reportedly by Combs himself), and that was an apt description, as they mixed hip-hop beats with soulful crooning. Their style was new; these were R&B artists who dressed—who lived—hip-hop. K-Ci, JoJo, DeVanté and Mr. Dalvin wore leather, and sheepskin, and tracksuits, and lots of bling; this was not your mother’s R&B quartet.
But a funny thing happened on the way to 12 R&B chart singles (excluding an airplay-only track and a soundtrack cut), 10 of which went top 10 and a full half of those which were #1s: for all their hip-hop bravado, nasty talk and of-the-moment fashions, the Jodeci songs which established such a beachhead on the charts were the old-fashioned ones, the romantic ballads. After “Gotta Love,” an uptempo track from their debut album Forever My Lady, was a nonstarter, Uptown quickly switched promotional gears and unleashed the album’s title track on an unsuspecting public. The response was immediate and massive: the sumptuous “Forever My Lady” was the first in a string of back-to-back-to-back #1 records, each of which spent a pair of weeks at the top of the charts (their pop success was initially middling, with “Lady” peaking at #25, “Stay” an assuredly frustrating #41, and “Come & Talk To Me” a near-breakthrough, making it to #11). Each of those three smashes, along with the #10 hit “I’m Still Waiting,” is featured on Back to the Future, and sounds just as superb today as they did over a decade ago. These songs were designed with romance in mind, and still do the trick, all lush production that’s never overdone—DeVanté has a very light touch—and harmonies to make you swoon.
Commercially speaking, Jodeci went from strength to strength. Appearing on Uptown MTV Unplugged gave them their first (and only) top 10 pop single and four weeks atop the R&B chart via a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Lately.” Their sophomore album, 1993’s Diary of a Mad Band, debuted on the Billboard album chart at #3 (and #1 R&B) as its first single, “Cry For You,” enjoyed the boys’ second consecutive four-week run at #1 on the R&B singles chart, with “Feenin’” following to #2. “What About Us” may have been a bit too copycat (of Jodeci’s own work) for its own good, as it made it only to #14. But that minor misstep didn’t stop the brothers Hailey and DeGrate; their third and final album, The Show, The After Party, The Hotel, debuted at #1 on the album chart, spinning off another trio of top 10 R&B singles (“Freek ’N You,” “Get On Up,” and the utterly sublime “Love U 4 Life”). With a few exceptions—“Freek ‘N You,” which for all its subtlety might as well have been titled “Fuckin’ You,” and the clever drug metaphor of “Feenin’” (their mangling of “fiending,” natch)—these are love songs, pure and simple. By and large, from Jodeci, they sound sincere—but as they got increasingly explicit (and the press starting reporting more on their nasty habits backstage), the sentiment seemed to start wearing a bit thin. Then, inexplicably, there was no more. The party, and its attendant magnificent run of music, just ended.
Back To the Future collects all of the above singles, save for “Gotta Love,” adding a couple of their more popular album tracks (such as “My Heart Belongs To U” and “Good Luv”) and a few different mixes of lesser-known songs (unfortunately, the infamous Wu-Tang mix of “Freek ‘N You” is nowhere to be found). And save for two tracks near the album’s end (“Success” and “S-More,” whose inclusion I just don’t understand), this album is relentless. The romance is slathered on thickly, but it works. From these voices, you believe it. The production helped to banish new jack swing from the airwaves, ushering in a new era of R&B, one that persists to this day (ask Omarion, or Pretty Ricky, or countless others of their spiritual children). Finally, the fact that these superb slices of early-‘90s R&B are still cherished by and spun on adult R&B stations should tell you plenty.
Presumably, Jodeci ended so that K-Ci and JoJo could embark on a career of their own, apart from the DeGrate brothers. That career has now produced more albums (four) than Jodeci did (three), but don’t take that as good news. Apart from DeVanté and Mr. Dalvin, the Haileys succumb to their worst impulses, which largely revolve around adult contemporary bathos. It’s well worth noting that the song which gives their collection its title, “All My Life,” went to #1 on the pop chart, but not R&B; it didn’t even make the R&B singles chart. To an extent, K-Ci & JoJo on their own are a soul injection away from Celine Dion territory, combining generically flat “R&B” production (lots of shuffle beats and synth snare cracks) with genuinely mediocre songwriting (especially the lyrics, oh these lyrics): “How Could You,” “Tell Me It’s Real,” the nails-on-chalkboard “Crazy” (again, so telling: #11 pop, #63 R&B—the soul is gone), and I could go on.
That’s not to say that everything in K-Ci & JoJo’s catalog is a failure. For instance, “Don’t Rush (Take Love Slowly),” the follow-up to the execrable wedding standard that is “All My Life,” is a nicely grooving midtempo track with a bit of substance to it. Oddly, the duo has excelled on soundtrack entries, chiefly because outside of their own albums, they’ve worked with people who know to craft songs that play to their strengths (and honestly, JoJo’s not that good as a songwriter or producer). The R. Kelly-produced and -penned “Life” is a great, gritty slab of contemporary southern soul, complete with a guitar lick that could be from the B.B. King songbook. “Never Say Never Again,” which Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis did up for How Stella Got Her Groove Back (a supremely underrated soundtrack), is a smoldering ballad, and The Prince of Egypt’s “Through Heaven’s Eyes” finds K-Ci & JoJo singing gospel—they were raised on it, and they still excel at it; I’d love to hear them sink their chops into a Fred Hammond production. Then there’s this album’s apex, which funnily enough isn’t even a K-Ci & JoJo song, but K-Ci’s sole solo outing. For the 1994 film Jason’s Lyric, while he was still a member of Jodeci, he hit the studio with James Mtume behind the boards to tackle Bobby Womack’s gutbucket classic “If You Think You’re Lonely Now.” Mtume plays it as close to the original as possible, and K-Ci doesn’t disappoint. His voice was made for a song like this, and he makes the most of the opportunity, delivering a performance that’s all raw grit and honesty. Sadly, he’s never hit this height again.
K-Ci & JoJo Hailey still have voices worthy of wonder, but their career as hitmakers seems to clearly be a thing of the past, their time as makers of great records even longer gone. Jodeci couldn’t have lasted forever—all supernovas implode in time—but it’s understandable to have hoped for more from the Hailey brothers as their own entity. Get Back To the Future, far superior to any of Jodeci’s three albums, and remember fondly. Try to forget what came after. [A-/C+]