Over a decade removed from the sizzle and spark of their landmark Funky Divas (1992) LP, En Vogue held fast to their creative passion.
Soul Flower, their fifth album, allowed Terry Ellis and Cindy Herron-Braggs to rise to the challenge of crafting something timely and tasteful.
On board with En Vogue mainstays was newcomer Rhona Bennett; this union added another layer to the unbelievable tale of this indefatigable girl group.
The Noughties began for En Vogue conceptually with Masterpiece Theatre (2000), their fourth record. A synthesis of classical music and contemporary R&B, its gamble was lost in a changing musical landscape. Three years spanned between EV3 (1997) and Masterpiece Theatre; many of En Vogue’s peers had rescinded and left a vacuum that the singles-ready Destiny’s Child quickly filled. En Vogue’s doo-wop styled vocal approach, the rage in the early-to-mid 1990’s, might have played passé to younger listeners.
En Vogue’s label EastWest Records faced a turbulent dissolution that put its roster of artists into a difficult position. As a result, Masterpiece Theatre lacked the promotional punch needed to sell it.
Maxine Jones, one of the En Vogue originals, took her leave of rest not long after Masterpiece Theatre was issued. Ellis and Herron-Braggs remained and rallied Amanda Cole for touring and recording; Cole appeared on their holiday LP, The Gift of Christmas (2002).
Rhona Bennett had been making rounds as an aspiring actress and singer since the early 1990’s. She’d been a “Mousketeer” on the revived ‘Mickey Mouse Club’; that show’s alumni featured Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake. After several acting gigs, including ‘Homeboys in Outer Space’ and ‘The Jamie Foxx Show,’ Bennett caught the eye of super-producer Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins. Bennett signed to his Darkchild Records imprint and put out her first album, Rhona (2001).
Cole abruptly departed En Vogue when the writing and recording of Soul Flower began. Propitiously, Bennett and En Vogue would intersect in 2003.
Slick, sexy and professional were apt adjectives to describe En Vogue’s previous music from a casual distance; however, the aforementioned EV3 allowed them a chance to work with different producers (for the first time) and new sounds.
Some of those sounds borrowed from the (then) wildly popular sub-genre of R&B, neo-soul; EV3 cuts like “Right Direction,” “Love Makes You Do Thangs” and “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes” marked a predisposition to that sonic aesthetic.
While neo-soul had cooled in the early half of the last decade, that loose atmosphere informed Soul Flower. Still, En Vogue were cognizant of their namesake and desired that “modern touch”. With Bennett along as a member (and songwriter), Ellis and Herron-Braggs worked out a winning formula. Co-piloting with En Vogue were long-standing producers Thomas McElroy and Denzil Foster
Two Bennett leads started the LP off and showed that she could hang with the En Vogue veterans: “Losin My Mind” and “Ez-a-lee”.
“Losin My Mind’s” brass flashes and earworm melody that threaded throughout the song, courtesy of Ellis and Herron-Braggs harmonies, hypnotized. “Ez-a-lee’s” guitar tuning pizzicato and arid beats were trim; this “less is more” approach in the arrangements had En Vogue brandishing their abilities with ease.
Doubt of chemistry between Bennett, Ellis and Herron-Braggs was dismissed with a pair of breezy disco numbers: “Ooh Boy” and “Heaven”. Soul Flower beamed continuously with a sassy Guy cover (“I Do Love You (Piece of My Love)”) perfumed black-pop (“Ooh La La”) and an empowerment jam (“Stop”).
A bit of cutting room floor flotsam splintered Soul Flower slightly: “All You See,” “Careful,” “How Do I Get Over” and “New Day Callin'”. Despite the inherent “bang for your buck” CD filler flaw with the mentioned quartet of songs, Soul Flower portrayed an energized En Vogue.
En Vogue got off on the promotional good foot with an appearance on ‘Soul Train’ (Season 33, Episode #15) on 1/31/04 to perform Soul Flower’s lead single “Ooh Boy”. The album itself released on 2/25/04 while “Losin My Mind” was moved forward as the second single. Their fifth LP was En Vogue’s first independent release via the California based 33rd Street Records imprint.
En Vogue’s sales slip didn’t halt with “Losin My Mind” or Soul Flower. The album fared well on the U.S. Billboard Independent Album Chart (#15) and the ever loyal U.S. Top R&B / Hip-Hop Albums Chart (#47). Fortunately, the pundits received Soul Flower favorably; David Jefferies of All Music Guide remarked of the project:
Four years after their last true full-length album, En Vogue return as independent women, not only in record label but also in attitude. Soul Flower benefits from more of an eye on the groove than on the charts and better than ever tricks from longtime producers Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy.
Within the first five seconds of the album listeners get a slinky shuffle of a beat, ’40’s-styled harmonies, and a confident, soulful lead vocal. A ton of winning ideas follow, and Foster and McElroy seem to be having as much fun as ever. The 2004 version of En Vogue — original members Terry Ellis and Cindy Herron with newish member Rhona Bennett — harmonize as well as the original four, adding a mature attitude that’s still sexy and strong.
En Vogue Performing “Ooh Boy” on Soul Train, 2004
The record didn’t rock the charts, but En Vogue maintained their reputation for solid albums with Soul Flower.
What came after its release would be a tumultuous decade of shifting line-ups. As it stands, the current line-up of En Vogue is as it was 10 years ago: Bennett, Herron-Braggs and Ellis.
There have been several rumors of albums being started (and shelved) in that decade of changing faces; fans eagerly await En Vogue’s next record and if Soul Flower is any indication, their next record will be another ace affair. Ranking: Semi-Classic