Saturday 13 March 2021

Enter the Dru/ Dru Hill (1998): Albums of my Life: An A-Z

...getting into Dru Hill at about 14 or 15. I sadly can't remember the moment I first listened to them, but once I got my hands on a CD copy of 'Enter the Dru', I was invested. As a teenager you like what you like. You don't overthink it and if you really like music, you won't let anyone tell you which bands or singers to follow. The chart singles were merely a starting point for me which meant that albums like this were played on repeat, inhabited and treasured.

Dru Hill were an American four piece R n B group who were at their peak with this album. The lead singer, Sisqo, is the most well-known member who had solo success with the likes of 'Thong Song'. There is potentially (due to the popularity of this song and the gimmicky nature of it), the tendency to view Sisqo as a rather amusing persona. He always seemed to love the limelight and this was no more evident to me than when he appeared on Celebrity Big Brother in the UK and went into the house only after performing one of his solo hits to the crowd (not standard CBB etiquette, but clearly part of his management's deal with the production company!), who lapped it up. Then there was his bleached white hair, statement chains and bold (yet highly accomplished) dance skills! He is such a showman and I love him for it!

Dru Hill, the group, begin, but don't end with Sisqo. Jazz, Woody and Nokio are the aliases of the other members from the original lineup and the vocal talent of these men is incredible. Not only that, but they have all written tracks on the album and take their time to step forward with solos. The name 'Dru Hill' comes from Druid Hill Park in Baltimore-- a place near where they all lived growing up. Together, the Dru Hill sound is harmonic, rich and highly emotive at times. There seems to be a bond between the members, who went to high school and also worked together in a fudgery in Baltimore in which they would sing the music of their gospel, soul roots.

Sadly, relations crumbled soon after the release of this album with James "Woody Rock" Green leaving. There has been re-incarnations of the group with some other members, but the first two albums, 'Dru Hill' and 'Enter the Dru' were their heyday in terms of commercial success.

This album is one of two halves. I can be more objective about 'Enter the Dru' now that I am distanced from it as an adult. At 15, I was a prime age for their highly romanticised and dramatic love songs. Every teenager goes through relationship woes (even if it is the aching in the absence of a relationship!) I was arguably a little young for the highly sexual early tracks of the album, but that's only through the lens of someone old enough to have teenage children! It's easy to forget that most young people don't know that much about sex, not really. Those raunchy, sexed-up lyrics have no context when you're inexperienced (it's when you get older that you realise how steamy they really are!) 

But whilst 'Real Freak' sets a lust-fuelled tone to the album. My interest was always peaked as the album progressed into its second half. The delightful filth of 'How Deep is Your Love' (complete with a breathy, Spanish-speaking woman) and 'Real Freak', compared to  'These Are the Times' (we can make love, or not at all"), is an irony not lost on me as an adult! But perhaps it's also paradoxical-- many relationships do start with pure lust, or we go into relationships thinking it is all about finding someone who gets our pulse racing. Then, like Sisqo and the boys, we may well find something more significant along the way.

The album is of its time: both in sound production and lyrically. The 90s RnB era never felt like it would end when you were in it as a teenager; you didn't know any different than the harmonies and tropes of the genre. Then you grew up and it changed, obvious autotune became a mainstay; sexualisation of performers and their song lyrics overruled the equally popular focus on songs about 'love' and romance. Boys ii Men and the like let young people see that men could sing about heartache, forgiveness and sacrifice; some female performers may have inevitably gone down the route of provocative stage costumes, but there were those that made it in the industry with a more wholesome approach, lyrically and image-wise (think Brandy, for example).

To see a boy band or 'vocal harmony group' in the charts now is rare. It is not a la mode apparently-- which seems odd in a time of wokeness and embracing the spectrum of gender experience. Sisqo's heartfelt lyric: 'I cry late at night...inside my heart, I was all alone' is desperately sung in the final track. Who would have thought a band like Dru Hill would be simultaneously 'dated', yet before their time! Would teenagers today take to a group of young men singing about their emotions? 
The joy of opening up a CD case after many years...a self-made 'mix tape' 

Enter the Dru's second half begins, in my mind, at track 7 'You are Everything' (which is actually not at the  halfway point, so perhaps it is fair to say there is more romance than raunch on offer in this album). It begins with an acoustic guitar, a crackly vinyl effect and Sisqo instructing his bandmates 'Woody, help me out', 'Jazz, you chill for a minute', 'Nokio come on'! It seems cheesy now, but there's something I really love about the way, in many Dru Hill tracks, the members bring each other in, by name; it's like a 'tag team' system which makes me see them as a unit. This is used in 'What Are We Gonna Do' (the final track) where, let me tell you, tears used to roll back in the day. When Sisqo sings 'Woody, Woody, Woody' it's like he can't keep himself together to sing the song and needs back up. And Woody's voice is just...smooth as butter. You don't get high-emotion like this in R n B these days!

Another stand out song I need to talk about is 'Beauty', written by Tamir 'Nokio the N-Tity' Ruffin. It's about the attraction to someone before speaking to them. It has the 'cool' 90s R n B, clicky, drum machine beat, pared down and simple to keep the vocals the focus; the solo performances shine so gorgeously and the harmonies are amazing as ever. As aforementioned, Sisqo is seen as a caricature by some due to his iconic image and solo single, 'Thong Song', but my goodness, his voice is so distinctive and strong. With the group, his lead vocals weave in and out of the chorus so effortlessly and, quite frankly, make this song the triumph that it is.. 

1. What Are We Gonna Do-- the times I cried to this...
2. Beauty-- such a gorgeous ode.
3. You Are Everything-- I used to play this one a lot

... I'm wanting a blast from the past. 

'Misery loves company
By now you should know
People always have advice about being together
When they're all alone'
  ('What Are We Gonna Do')

I might have quoted some more risque lyrics here, but this is my favourite song on the album, so I had to reference it.

... it'd be red, bright, dragon red: fiery, passionate and strong.

'Evolution'/ Boys ii Men (1997)
'Experience: Jill Scott 826+'/ Jill Scott (2001)

What is your favourite album beginning with E?

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