Jody Watley - A Rare Bloom
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1998 was a year of turns for Jody Watley. During this period, she was mounting what some music critics would deem as her “commercial comeback.” Watley opened the 1990s with 1991’s Affairs of the Heart and 1993’s Intimacy making slight stylistic twists. Watley toned down her dance textures and played up more demure, sensual soulful ones.
Even with the success on the R&B charts (position #23) of the lead single ‘Off the Hook,’ Atlantic Records mismanaged the record and it never released stateside.
Watley took a risk that allotted her more creative freedom, won new fans, secured old ones, and garnered respect, but she fell out of “pop” relevance, though her singles still continued to place well on the American R&B charts. After her fourth record on MCA in 1993, Watley parted company with the major label and her longtime producer and (as we later discovered) husband, Andre Cymone.
1995 saw the release of her fifth album Affection on her own independent label Avitone Records. As before, it found her doing her own brand of progressive R&B, though this set had a jazzier feel to it. 1996 saw MCA release the first Jody Watley retrospective.
In 1998 Watley signed to Atlantic Records to release her sixth album, Flower. This record saw her working with knob twisters like Masters at Work, Malik Pendleton, Derek Edmondson, and Bryce Wilson (of Manotronix and Groove Theory) were some of the contemporary talent that was put around Watley for this project. Even with the success on the R&B charts (position #23) of the lead single ‘Off the Hook,’ Atlantic Records mismanaged the record and it never got released stateside.
Flower has since become something of a “collector’s item” to Jody Watley and R&B fans in America. Since it was only released overseas, it can fetch a pretty penny when sold in second hand music stores or internet retailers.
I was fortunate enough to have Jody Watley herself, as she was readying her first live album which is out now, weigh in on Flower. Miss Watley graciously answered some questions about this unique period.
Fly: Coming as it did after your first independent effort 1995’s Affection, how did this project differ to that one?
JW: I didn’t want to make another record that felt specifically more R&B at that point. I felt happy and wanted something groovy to reflect where I was, as always.
Fly: Flower managed to incorporate the then “in” sounds of urban music, though all of your records have reflected the “sounds of the time”. Was this truly meant to be your commercial resurgence album?
“I couldn’t believe they’d (Destiny’s Child) recorded my song and basically removed the credit of the actual writer, which was me!”
JW: Hmm. I don’t know. I never look at anything I do as a “resurgence.” I treat every record as a progression. Other people put tags on it. That said, I was hyped by Atlantic (Records) that they would make the record a priority in terms of marketing and promotional money. That didn’t happen to my dismay. Which really hurt because it was the first time, I said “perhaps you should compromise more,” and subsequently the A&R staff had more of its way. Flower wasn’t the record I wanted to make at all. I did the best with what I was presented with.
Fly: What was your musical ambition with Flower? What textures and feelings did you want to convey to your audience with this particular album?
JW: I wanted to make a cutting edge international dance record, with soul and excitement, modern! My plan included Ben Watt of Everything but the Girl, Todd Terry, Armand Van Helden, Masters at Work (they did end up on one track). Once Atlantic (Records) signed me, they flipped the plot completely! Flower still showcased growth, just not in the way I wanted it to. I wrote less, which was different. I still had say over song selection, but I was only getting certain types of material from A&R.
‘Lovin’ You So,’ produced by D’Wayne Wiggins of Tony! Toni! Tone! and written by Rahsaan Patterson of whom I’m a fan, is my favorite. I also made some lifelong friends from this project, and that’s the best part. Maybe that was what I really needed then in my life, and not another commercial hit record!
‘Sweet 16’ which I wrote, ended up being picked up by Destiny’s Child for their Writings on the Wall (1999) project. The odd thing is initially, I was not credited, Beyonce (Knowles) was! A fan actually wrote me an e-mail saying, “your song is on their record and they didn’t list you!”
This was a real die-hard (fan) who had a copy of Flower. I was shocked. She’d added a small eight-bar bridge also without permission. I couldn’t believe they’d (Destiny’s Child) recorded my song and basically removed the credit of the actual writer, which was me! It was all corrected in the end, I’m credited and paid. I also still like her (Beyonce) as an artist, but someone really tried to pull a fast one!
Fly: You worked with Rakim again on this outing on the remix of the hit ‘Off the Hook,’ what was it like linking back up with someone you’d had history with?
JW: I love Rakim. It was cool, relaxed. He wanted to make sure I was fine with everything, just like when he wrote the rhyme for ‘Friends,’ the classic!
Fly: For me, ‘Everything You Do’ ranks as one of your finest pieces of music you’ve done. It is sleek, sensual, romantically conflicted and that is portrayed beautifully in the words and your vocal delivery. What was, if anything, special or different about that particular cut for you?
JW: Thank you! I haven’t listened to this in ages; it was slinky, funky, and sexy. I remember asking them to make this the first single, and not ‘Off the Hook,’ it kicked ass when I did it live at a showcase. Actually, after listening right now, this could still come out; it goes into that acoustic thing at the end, sort of like Justin Timberlake’s ‘Love Stoned/I Think She Knows’ does right now!
Fly: Atlantic (Records) truly dropped the ball on this record, especially in America where it was never commercially released. What do you truly think the reason for that was?
JW: The music business is a rough game; corporations have their own agendas. Radio stations being deregulated in the 1990s has also sucked the life out of the business as well. The fact that there are a handful of corporations controlling what we hear is a problem. Atlantic nearly took out all the love I had for being an artist and making music, but I bounced back, with a renewed vigor! I will cover this era in my book; it was truly another turning point.
Fly: This was the last album to be an out-and-out organic record, from here on your took the organic approach and infused it into the electronic and dance records you’ve done in the past few years, recently with 2006s The Makeover. Was this a conscious effort or just another natural progression for Miss Watley?
JW: I like incorporating different elements musically. I think I am getting a better balance now: dance, electronic, soul, a splash of jazz. I like live instruments for the warmth, but the synth stuff gives it more “umph”! I’m conscious that I’ll be singing these songs live; I don’t do anything from Flower currently.
Fly: I noticed, or possibly imagined, the “night to remember” lyric in ‘Baby Tonight,’ was that a playful Shalamar reference?
JW: ‘A Night to Remember’ is a good line. It was a slight nod to that past. We also had a song and album called Friends (1982), and of course I wrote my own very real life ‘Friends.’ Every now and again my irreverence comes through!
Fly: Almost nine years later, what does this project mean to you now that it did or didn’t then?
JW: I’m slightly ambivalent about it actually. I don’t have the same emotional attachment as I do with every other record I’ve made. People who have heard it, always really like it, so that’s a good thing. I feel it could have done well, if it had been released. The reviews were good and the buzz was strong. Even though it made it to the shelves in the U.K., it was without a penny in marketing and promotion. A tax write off!
The song, ‘Just One More Time,’ had people tell me they were wrecked hearing it even made me cry! When I recorded it, I envisioned singing it with at the Grammy’s. I guess it shows, even when I was being pressured to be turned into something else, I was able to make a quality piece of music. I put my heart into it, despite the fact it wasn’t what I truly wanted. This is my essence, heart and soul.
Flower is unique in “the body Watley,” standing as a slight extension of her previously groovy, organic urban projects she had done prior.
As stated by Watley, it would be the first album where her writing credits were reduced. Though if one weren’t to glance at the liner notes and just listen, you couldn’t tell Watley didn’t deliver the lyrics herself. Her emotive vocal presence of sincerity and conviction gave the songs a certain depth that made them hers alone.
The grooves are solidly pleasant, heady, and intoxicatingly hip. Sampling ‘Pack’d My Bags’ by Rufus, ‘Lovin’ You So’ glides by on a breezy “Sunday soul” note, where the jazzy sass of ‘I Don’t Want You Back’ coolly whips by you in a brassy frenzy, and ‘Everything You Do’ makes being “the other woman” sound so sexy, you may just want to try it.
On the ballads tip Watley delivers some of her most assured work, the best of the pick being the moody ‘A Lifetime.’ Of course ‘Off the Hook’ the hit of the record shines in two forms, the original, sleek, midnight oil version and the more hip hop/dance remix version, featuring Rakim dropping in some madly flirtatious lines.
Overall, Flower found Watley embracing a commercial direction and doing it her way. Despite the commercial setback it caused, it is regarded amongst fans and critics as one of her best works. Watley would move forward with 1999’s Saturday Night Experience a Japanese release only, 2003’s Midnight Lounge , and 2006’s The Makeover. The last two records saw American releases and all three of the albums found her using the urban/electronic sound she initially wanted for the Flower project. Though, one has to think that things happen the way they are supposed to, in the words of Jody herself, “There’s growing in knowing.”
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