Out of all the groups that we’ve covered on this From the Record Crate feature, I’ve a feeling En Vogue is one of the groups that most people don’t know about. They went from being one of the biggest acts of the 1990s to a relative footnote today, beset by lawsuits, line-up changes, and Lifetime movies. It’s a shame: En Vogue was one of the best groups of the 1990s and one of the best girl groups PERIOD. And all the shake-ups and tweaks to their lineup does absolutely nothing to lessen the greatness of their musical output, especially their 1992 album Funky Divas.
Funky Divas is amazing. It’s part vocal album, part R&B, part new jack swing. The highlight of the album is the pitch-perfect harmonies of Terry Ellis, Cindy Heron, Maxine Jones, and Dawn Robinson, the group’s members. The members rotate on who’s singing lead and, no matter what song and who’s leading, the harmonies remain wonderfully tight. The album never loses sight of what we’re here for: the vocals. The production always focuses on the vocals, pulling back with the backing or occasionally removing the backing entirely. This occasionally leads to drastic choices: the album’s cover of The Beatles’ “Yesterday” strips back the instrumentation, leaving barely anything more than a beat to better show off the divas’ voices. It’s something that will make Beatles purists spin in their graves but it plays to En Vogue’s strengths and sounds amazing. Obviously, the album is willing to experiment and play with sounds and genres. A song will start off with a rap or a spoken-word bridge, starting off a song with forced banter that’s a little cliche and a little ridiculous, but pretty darn endearing.
The first single off the album is the almost perfect “My Lovin (You’re Never Gonna Give It).” More than anything else, “My Lovin” shows us the power of En Vogue’s vocals. That breakdown near the end of the song is a moment of pure talent: the divas get a moment to show off their stuff, further proving the tightness of their harmonies and the sheer talent of the group as they perform a short harmonized section a capella. “My Lovin” also gave us an equally iconic music video: those sparkly silver dresses are in the possession of the Smithsonian and, at least in June 2015 when I visited the museum, were on display at the Museum of American History.
While “My Lovin” is a sultry, sexy dance-pop number, the third single “Free Your Mind” is loud and powerful, a borderline rock and roll song. “Free Your Mind” attacks stereotypes, aggressively calling out stereotypes against women, African Americans, and African American women. “Free Your Mind” is a POWERHOUSE. It’s loud, forceful, and in your face. The shredding guitars, pounding drum machine, and intense production combine with powerful harmonies and blunt lyrics to create such a beautifully loud and beautifully in your face end product. You can’t ignore this song—at least, En Vogue certainly won’t let you. The divas don’t take this song quietly, giving it as much power and as much force as the song deserves. “Before you can read me you’ve got to learn how to see me” is such an amazingly powerful sentiment that, unfortunately, many people still need to learn twenty-five years on.
What else can you say? Yes, some of the beats sound a little bit stale and the very 1990s new jack swing style is occasionally a new jack swing and a miss, but overall Funky Divas is a vocal triumph. The songs are good but what really sells Funky Divas is the showmanship. It’s a beautifully crafted album with beautifully crafted harmonies, showing the talent of En Vogue. The technical precision of the harmonies is amazing. Every note is nailed perfectly, every chord is so tight, every run is executed flawlessly. Not only are these divas funky, but they’re amazingly talented to boot, a wonderful staple of the 1990s that definitely deserves a re-listen.