March 11, 2004

En Vogue: Going Out of Style

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For En Vogue, 2004 will commemorate 14 years in the biz, seven as a trio, four roster changes, and their ninth studio release, Soul Flower.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much about En Vogue that’s actually “en vogue” anymore. In 1997, lead singer Dawn Robinson parted, taking with her much of the group’s popularity and sex appeal. Three years later, feisty Maxine Jones’s ride into the sunset left the once racy ensemble with a butterknife-sharp edge. But whether or not we’re ready, the “funky divas” are back with Rhona Bennett, Maxine’s replacement’s replacement and former mouseketeer.

Rhona’s notably huskier vocals are prominently featured on the album’s first track, “Losin’ My Mind,” and are a major departure from En Vogue’s notoriously rococo and carefully modulated delivery. Nevertheless, Rhona’s robust vocal stylings are softened by Terry Ellis and Cindy Herron’s perfectly enunciated, airtight choruses.

Like any other flower, there are a few weeds growing in this pot. One, entitled “All U See,” flaunts just how funky these divas can get with lyrics that ask, “is it my hips/ my lips/ my eyes/ my thighs/ my chest/ my hair/ my big ol’…” that attracts all the “brothas with lines that’ll make ya sick.” The nonchalant references to “T&A,” “thongs,” and “sexy underwear” on “All U See” makes it crystal clear that the simple innuendo of smashes like “My Lovin'” are now obsolete.

In the ’90s, the En Vogue sirens were the reigning queens of covers. Their renditions of the Beatles “Yesterday” and Curtis Mayfield’s “Give it Up, Turn it Loose,” and the Mayfield-penned “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” were so sonically distinct, they became the ladies’ own. It seemed there was no track that En Vogue couldn’t master, until they met their match in “Piece of My Love.” That song was a career-defining hit for late ’80s and early ’90s mega-producer Teddy Riley and R&B bad boys Guy who made it a New Jack Swing standard way back in 1988. Not only was it a poor choice for En Vogue to redo, but the finished product is a mess of vocal excess and musical under-production. “Piece of My Love,” much like Soul Flower itself, isn’t especially bad or good, just painfully mediocre.

There are few songs that have the potential to break into the mainstream. The ambient “New Day Callin” and medium-paced, yet danceable, “Ooh Boy” have probably already been tapped for The Gap’s summer store soundtrack. And there’s no doubt that the sultry “How Do I Get Over” is destined for some radio station’s “Quiet Storm” playlist.

Even with founding members Terry and Cindy finally making their debuts as executive producers, the pizzazz of the old En Vogue never resurfaces. As talented and sincere as these ladies are, there is something undeniably artificial about this flower.

Archived article by Justin Finch