Retro Modern “Retro” Pick: En Vogue’s “Whatever” (Single)
Introduction: En Vogue is an R&B vocal outfit originating from Oakland, California.
The original roster ― Cindy Herron-Braggs, Maxine Jones, Dawn Robinson and Terry Ellis ― rose to fame off the back of their debut album Born to Sing (1990, Atlantic). They followed up that success with their blockbuster sophomore set Funky Divas (1992, EastWest).
Known for their magnetic singing style, especially their harmonies, En Vogue recalled the black female group boom of the 1970s, but with a modern perspective. They were one of the biggest girl groups of the early 1990s. By 1997, several changes personally and professionally made their junior effort EV3 a seminal turning point for En Vogue ― now a three-piece.
The album’s second single, “Whatever,” was a career benchmark.
Synopsis: In the fall of 1993, En Vogue released an extended play entitled Runaway Love. The title track became another of their patented R&B and pop chart hits; the song was also meant to tide over fans as En Vogue took a brief respite from four years of non-stop activity. Behind the scenes, En Vogue were tightening things up on the business side with their label EastWest Records.
After the multi-platinum sales of their first two albums, the group engaged in talks to renegotiate their record deal. In that interim, En Vogue also began brainstorming their third album. Member Terry Ellis released her solo effort Southern Gal (1995, EastWest) to moderate success during their hiatus too. A total of three years elapsed before the next En Vogue recording debuted to the public.
“Don’t Let Go (Love),” a contemporary torch song penned and produced by the Atlanta-based trio Organized Noize, was an excellent showcase of En Vogue’s diverse musical appetites. Earmarked as the lead off single from the crime drama Set It Off film soundtrack in October 1996, the number was an unequivocal win for En Vogue ― US #2, US R&B #1. The song acted as a taster, and introductory selection, for their forthcoming third album, which had En Vogue working with new songwriters and producers in addition to their longtime collaborators Thomas McElroy and Denzil Foster.
Unfortunately, the aforementioned contract negotiations had not reached an acceptable resolution for Dawn Robinson. Unable to find common ground, Robinson exited En Vogue in the early days of 1997. This left most of EV3 unfinished, requiring it to be reworked in her absence. Seven months separated “Don’t Let Go (Love)” from “Whatever,” the second single leading up to EV3. The group’s first offering as a trio was made available to audiences on May 13, 1997. The commercial release of “Whatever” saw it backed with a holdover from the EV3 recording sessions as its b-side, the late-night lounge cool of “It’s About Love.”
Primarily written, and helmed, by the renowned Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, “Whatever” continued in the mercurial vein of “Don’t Let Go (Love),” but with its own twist. The track, a shuffling stab of synth-funk topped with bits of bluesy, broken guitar riffs and dissonant electronic beeps and buzzes, mesmerized with its urban-goth scope. En Vogue delivered their airtight harmonic blend and each member stepped into a solo during the song’s span, demonstrating their capability to function independently as well as collectively. The single’s partnering music video, directed by brilliant Matthew Rolston, yielded a haunting visual backdrop to match the spooky soul of the song.
“Whatever” placed respectably chart-wise (US #16, US R&B #6) and eventually certified gold in America. EV3 followed shortly thereafter on June 17, 1997, a display of the group’s continued musical growth.
While the story of En Vogue took on even more peaks and valleys in the two decades that followed “Whatever,” they never stopped recording or performing. As the group ― their current line-up consists of Terry Ellis, Cindy Herron-Braggs, and Rhona Bennett ― readies the release of their long-awaited sixth LP Electric Café later in 2017, “Whatever” is but one of many moments in their canon that shows their gift of making music that stretches the limits of listeners’ imaginations.
“Whatever” available on EV3