Having drawn lessons from the rise of hip-hop, early-90s R&B was no longer the flabby, glitzy, brassy razzamadazzle it had been in the mid-80s. Crucial to the paring-down process was the prominence of En Vogue and the unexpected supremacy of Soul II Soul, both of whom created a positive-minded, floor-filling unfussy vibe, albeit in very different ways. US hip-hop producers were ideally placed to understand this new flowering of soul music, since it was made much the same way as rap, deploying breaks and retro grooves to create something new. Among the best of this new breed of R&B groups were Zhané, protégées of two New Jersey acts, Naughty By Nature and Queen Latifah, and members of their Flavor Unit collective, yet still independent in outlook. While they’re not as well-remembered as En Vogue, for an all-too-brief period across 1993-94 Renée Neufville and Jean Norris (Zhané is a mock Francophone contraction of their first names) were really saying something, as their debut album, Pronounced Jah-Nay, proves.
Listen to Pronounced Jah-Nay right now.
Like Pronounced Jah-Nay itself, let’s kick off with the big hit, ʻHey Mr DJ’, a tune that puts the swing into things, thanks to a handy piano sample snipped from Michael Wycoff’s 1982 club groover ʻLooking Up To You’. The girls sing beautifully here, but some of the credit is due to Naughty By Nature’s Kay Gee in the production suite, who gets Fam of Rottin Razcals to kick up a rumpus with a rabble-rousing rhyme or two to prevent things getting too languid. Busting out of jeeps across the late summer/early autumn of ’93, the record was a Top 10 US smash.
Further singles followed a similar template: slightly more uptempo, ʻGroove Thang’ sampled Patrice Rushen and went Top 20, ʻSending My Love’ made No.40 with its chugging bassline and soft, sophisticated feel and ʻVibe’ made good use of George Benson’s ʻLove X Love’ without troubling the charts – though it should have.
There’s more to Pronounced Jah-Nay than the singles, however. ʻSweet Taste Of Love’ snakes along on a drum machine smack set to “OK, but no faster than I have to” and a synth bass that burbles like it’s lying in the pool on a lilo, stoned. ʻChanges’ turns up the tempo a couple of notches but is built the same way, with some beguiling one-note-at-a-time piano lines. Renée Neufville’s ʻLove Me Today’ is lusher, with a warm softness in her voice to match the waltz-time lilt of the tune. ʻOff My Mind’ offers a spot of nightclub swing. ʻFor A Reason’, a ballad to close the set, has Jean Norris’ glowing vocal sounding like she spent some time in her childhood emulating Diana Ross in the mirror. No wonder the group were signed to Motown, like their mentor Queen Latifah: they would have understood each other.
One album later, that was it for Zhané, who parted to pursue solo careers – no surprise when you see who wrote what here: they both composed most of the material, but separately, with Renée Neufville taking the lioness’ share of the credits, though Norris still chipped in with a few gems. R&B moved swiftly on, but Pronounced Jah-Nay, originally released on 15 February 1994 and now given a 2LP reissue, now benefits from a luminous, nostalgic sheen. Say it any way you like, but do say it loud: they still sound just fine.
Pronounced Jah-Nay has been given a 2LP reissue, which can be bought here.