Three years separated Seal’s debut―Seal (ZTT/Sire/Warner Bros., 1991)―from its follow-up. When he had arrived in 1991, his interplay of dance music and ballads was refreshing. However, Seal was primarily viewed as a product of dancefloor culture. In between albums, Seal’s music underwent a shift in its presentation.
Seal II (ZTT/Sire/Warner Bros., 1994) pushed Seal’s quiet storm of uptempo and downtempo aesthetics to their maximum potential at that juncture. The LP cemented Seal as a balladeer for the remainder of his career―to the casual observer―but for those in the know, it was just another side to this varied singer-songwriter.
Working once again with friend and producer Trevor Horn, the two men constructed transformative pop canvases that drew on traditional (acoustic, orchestral) and modern (loops, breakbeats) sounds. An example of the shifting ebb of the album could be heard on “Bring It On.” What began with a wide open, almost pensive vibe later wandered into grounded territory―led by Seal’s voice and a specific production twist. It made for diverse headphone listening, yet the whole of Seal II’s backdrops hung together cohesively.
Many talented musicians worked alongside Seal on Seal II. A slight sampling of the talent included Joni Mitchell (heard on “If I Could”), Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman (of Prince and The Revolution fame), William Orbit, Joseph “Amp” Fiddler, and Harvey Mason.
Seal himself contributed the majority of the lyrics, with several organic collaborative songwriting sessions springing forth―see the aforementioned “Bring It On” which featured Wendy and Lisa’s words and vocals. Lyrically, Seal was intimate (“Don’t Cry”), socially conscious (“People Asking Why”) and operatic (“Dreaming in Metaphors”). Seal’s voice, that multi-faceted gift, brought the songs to life with urgency, sensitivity, and sensuality.
The album, released on May 31, 1994, spun off four singles between 1994 and 1995: “Prayer for the Dying,” “Kiss from a Rose,” “Newborn Friend,” and “Don’t Cry.” “Kiss from a Rose” struck a collective chord across the globe; re-released in 1995 on the Batman Forever soundtrack, its masculinity and grace have made it one of the new pop standards to be remembered for years to come. It also netted Seal three Grammys in 1996 for “Record of the Year,” “Song of the Year” and “Best Male Pop Vocal.”
“Kiss from a Rose” was also emblematic of a period in the 1990s when the adult contemporary ballad archetype was equally mature and sexy. Seal II became one of the singer’s best-selling projects. He’d release several albums throughout the 1990s and 2000s of an even higher caliber, notably Human Being (Warner Bros., 1998), Seal IV (Warner Bros., 2003) and System (Warner Bros., 2007).
It’s important to recognize that Seal, along with Donna Summer, Joan Armatrading, Tracy Chapman, Lenny Kravitz, etc., are not always appreciated by black music historians due to them eschewing the usual mooring of black music (R&B, jazz, hip-hop, etc.).
Granted, the mentioned acts dabbled in those black music styles, but more often than not, they found themselves eyeing a broader musical sphere. Seal’s quality output wasn’t too dissimilar from Maxwell, who emerged two years after Seal II. In fact, one could hear Seal’s energy present on Maxwell’s second long-player, the spacey, violin-spiked Embrya (Columbia, 1998).
Many in this black pop diaspora, including Seal, found themselves the victims of being undervalued by their primarily white audience when it came time to take stock of their critical value. On the other end of the spectrum, they clearly wouldn’t be held in the same esteem as other black performers who had more of a cultural connection to the African-American experience. It begs the questions: What quantifies “black success” and “cultural relevance”? Does a black artist have to be tied to R&B to be revered? These questions are to be answered another time.
Seal is absolutely a member of the pantheon of black pop―and popular music in general―as an intense force whose style is unmistakable. Seal II is but one of the many treasures dotting Seal’s discography.
Watch Seal perform “Kiss from a Rose” on MTV Unplugged in 1996.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B000002MMQ]