Here's a challenge - name the greatest female R&B group of all time.
The obvious answer is Destiny's Child. Beyonce n' dem have sold more than 60 million records worldwide - 702, Jade, Xscape and Brownstone ain't topping that.
But when it comes to album quality, even the mighty DC has to bow to the initials SWV.
Shame on you if you've forgotten the dominance of the Sisters With Voices. You're lucky I'm here to remind you.
In the early 90s, Tamara "Taj" Johnson, Leanne "Lelee" Lyons, and Cheryl "Coko" Gamble (with her creepy 10-inch fingernails) shopped their demo to major record labels around the U.S. in hopes of stardom. Their work landed in the lap of legendary producer Teddy Riley, who helped them sign with RCA Records. On October 27, 1992, (one day before my b'day), the group's aptly-named debut, It's About Time hit the masses and stars were born.
Wikipedia claims It's About Time has sold 12.5 million units worldwide. Eh, that seems a bit steep but I do know the album rests at triple platinum in the U.S. alone. You can't deny that success.
Regardless of sales, you know an album is good when more than half its contents wind up on the radio in some form. By my count, It's About Time and the follow-up EP The Remixes produced EIGHT singles:
- The hyperactive "I'm So Into You"
- "Weak" which dominated ever inner-city talent show for the next 10 years
- The underrated duet "Always On My Mind"
- The controversial "Downtown," which encouraged Hobbits to explore their ladies' Middle Earth, if you feel me
- "Anything," which wound up on the Above The Rim Soundtrack AND later was remixed with the Wu-Tang Clan
"Right Here," and its AMAZING remix, which famously sampled Michael Jackson's "Human Nature." It may be considered blasphemous, but I still prefer SWV's remix over MJ's original.
Nearly all those songs cracked the R&B chart's top 10. Meanwhile, "Weak" climbed all the way to No. 1 on the pop charts and "Right Here/Human Nature" peaked at No. 2.
Following the trail blazed by Mary J. Blige, SWV's hip-hop flavored R&B caught fire and dominated the airwaves for nearly two years.
Coko gathered her girls and her gruesome fake nails in 1996 in another attempt to claw their way to the top. The Platinum-selling New Beginning was released that spring, with "You're The One" leading the way. Add "You're The One" to the list of songs I can't listen to even today - my hometown radio station played that song ENDLESSLY and the video is still burned into my retinas. But it certainly wasn't a bad track, rolling all the way to No. 5 on the pop charts. I was a much bigger fan of the tender "Use Your Heart," one of the first tracks produced by The Neptunes. Thankfully Pharrell kept his squeaky falsetto at home.
One year later, the ladies returned for Release Some Tension. And best of all, Coko finally released those 12-inch long Lee Press-On Nails!
Release Some Tension received mixed reviews at the time, mainly because it was overloaded with guest rappers, but I think it still holds up well today. The lead single "Someone" featuring Diddy only reach No. 19 on the charts - a decent showing but not up to the ladies' standards. The slow jam "Rain" didn't do much better, but is much more fondly remembered.
The album also featured the Redman-assisted "Lose My Cool," which got radio play in my town, and of course the freaky "Can We," from the Booty Call Soundtrack - one of the first big achievements from the Missy Elliott/Timbaland camp. Despite its hit-or-miss reputation, the album went gold.
After dropping a Christmas album at the end of the year, the ladies split up to pursue solo careers. Lead singer Coko quickly hopped back into the studio, dropping guest vocals on the Men In Black theme song and even a track with LSG (!) before releasing Hot Coko in 1999.
I remember loving that album at the time, but sadly I can't recall much about it. I do remember the lead single "Sunshine" (mainly because the unattended kids playing near waterfalls freaked me out) and the album cut "Try-Na Come Home," which currently resides on my iPod. Coko also released "Triflin" alongside Eve, but that was a typical, late 90s "my man sucks" track. I'll pass
After her foray into the secular world didn't pan out, Coko focused on gospel, releasing Grateful in 2006, A Coko Christmas in '08 and The Winner In Me in 2009. Grateful and The Winner In Me both enjoyed solid success on the gospel charts. "Endow Me" is probably my favorite track from her gospel catalogue. It features Faith Evans, Lil Mo and Fantasia - it's like a gospel posse cut. I almost expected Busta Rhymes to jump on board.
The remaining Sisters with Voices may have bowed out of the music scene, but they still pop up occasionally. A few years back Taj appeared on the TV One reality show "I Married A Baller" with her husband, former NFL running back Eddie George. She also showed up in a season of Survivor.
Lelee has taken to the blogosphere, writing about how horrible R&B has become. Hmmm, wonder where she got that idea?
Should They Come Back?: There have been rumors of a comeback for years now and the ladies are reportedly working with Jazze Phae (boo) and Kwame (yay!). I loved Release Some Tension but admittedly it was an anticlimactic end to a stellar career. I'm confident the ladies could pull together one last album to cement their legacy. It might be too late for SWV to convince the young crowd that they're the greatest female R&B group ever, but those of us who remember their glory days know better.
Just promise me, Coko, keep the Super Shredder fingernails at home this time.