Stephanie Mills Live In Concert
Raymond Boyd

Music Sermon: The Forgotten Voices Of The ‘80s Pt. II

VIBE highlights powerful vocalists from the 80s who enjoyed longevity and success, but never reached crossover status.

In the last Music Sermon, we highlighted three ‘80s soul singers - Lisa Fischer, Vesta Williams and Phyllis Hyman - whose solo careers never reached full potential, despite their rare and enormous talent. Unfortunately, their stories don’t stand alone.

There are more cases that I can list off-hand of voices more powerful than most current artists, who’ve been relegated to the fringes of music conversations or completely left in the past. You know the key jams for some of these women; their songs are spun at house parties, at the cookout, during a good soul classics set, or when your parents get ‘hold of the aux cord. But the artists themselves aren’t nearly as visible as they should be – if they’re still visible at all. They weren’t in the ranks of participants for all-woman-power-singer specials like VH1 Divas. They don’t pop up for Grammy specials and tributes. But they do almost all have dedicated episodes of TV One’s Unsung.

It’s hard to narrow the field down to just a handful of these deserving artists to celebrate, but we’re going to get a few more in. In continuation from the last Music Sermon, VIBE examines an alternate aspect in the story of near-forgotten female vocalists of the ‘80s: artists who enjoyed longevity and success but never reached crossover status. Artists whose voices are known, but their names aren’t.

Angela Winbush

The hip-hop generation may not realize it, but it knows Angela Winbush. She’s been sampled, she’s been remixed, she’s been covered, and she’s one of the few women in our discussion who had a presence into the late-90s. In addition to a four-octave range, Angela was one of the first women who performed, wrote, arranged, produced and played multiple instruments, but she never felt she was properly recognized for her work. Despite such vocal range, all the looks she served looking like an 80s Gabrielle Union, and all the enduring bops she bestowed (seriously, I promise you know all these songs), she never crossed over and became a star.

Like many of the strongest vocalists of her era, Angela started as a background singer. She was part of Stevie Wonder’s group Wonderlove, and picked up writing and producing from watching Stevie work in the studio. At some point during her time with Stevie, she met Rene Moore, who was part of The Brothers Johnson. They each tell conflicting stories about whether they initially dated, but they decided they could work well together as a creative team, and they formed Rene & Angela. The duo wrote all their material from the beginning and was also producing by their second album.

The pair also started writing and producing for other acts, including penning one of Janet Jackson’s first singles, “Young Love.” Janet declined another song they wrote for her, to their benefit. “My First Love” was Rene & Angela’s first hit.

Angela and Rene moved to a new label for their fourth album, A Street Called Desire, and they were, as the kids say, in their bag. The project produced their biggest hits, joints that still hold up to this day. Angela was ultra ‘80s fly, too; she gave you fashion, hair, voice, everything.

Their ballad game was so tight, rumors persisted that the two were a couple (while Angela has said the two dated early in their relationship, they both maintain they weren’t romantically involved as professional partners).

Behind the scenes, though, conflict was escalating between the two. It began to come to a head when Angela took the lead on “Smile,” with no sonic trace of Rene on the track. The song hit No. 1, and proved Angela alone was as strong, if not stronger, than with Rene. (By the way: make a playlist for your boo, and put this song on it. You’re welcome.)

The album was their most successful, but after an alleged physical altercation with Rene while on tour, Angela decided she was done. They split after the album and immediately started throwing shots at each other in the press. Angela accused Rene of violent behavior (which he denied) and revealed that she’d in fact done most of the writing and producing they were credited for as a duo, but shared credit with Rene because she feared no one would take a female writer and producer seriously. She was right – her label almost dropped her because they assumed Rene did the heavy creative lifting until they heard the work Angela did for The Isley Brothers. Even years later, in 1991, Vesta Williams vented to Video Soul’s Donnie Simpson about her struggles to produce her own music, and used Angela as an example of the fight for women to get work and respect. “The males are dominating the production situation, but the females are dominating the charts…’Cause Angela Winbush; what happened to her? She was producing, she did a lot of production stuff.”

Once Angela was free from Rene and past a legal fight for proper songwriting credits, she continued to write and produce for other artists, including The Isley Brothers and Stephanie Mills. The latter led to a relationship with Ron (who’s 13 years her elder), and Angela eventually became the misses to Mr. Biggs.

As a solo artist, she came out the gate swinging with “Angel,” and landed an immediate No.1 song. The song is basically a remix of “Smile” on the low, but it worked.

I’m obliged to make a reference to “The Real Thing,” not because it was hit for her (it was, although I don’t think it’s one of her strongest songs), but because a young Don Cheadle is in the music video as a full-out backup dancer, and it’s hilarious.

After Angela and Ron were married, Ron took over the reins of her career as a manager, and she continued to produce for him and his brothers. Collaborations between the two became standard.

Back when she was a student at Howard University, Angela was a featured vocalist in gospel artist and composer Richard Smallwood’s youth choir. One of her most successful duets with Ron, “Lay Your Troubles Down,” was a nod to those roots; a take on Matthew 11:28-30.

In 1994 Angela released her last album, and scored one more solo hit with the Chuckii Booker-produced “Treat U Rite.” Looking like a young tender.

She decided to take a step back in her career and focus on her marriage, ironically, as Ron’s career was experiencing a resurgence. An OG with almost 30 years in the game, Ron didn’t deign to make the same promo rounds Angela needed to for her music. As a result, hosts like Don Cornelius in the earlier Soul Train clip and Donnie Simpson here would make Angela’s interviews about Ron, who they weren’t used to having access to.

“Float On” (1996), The Isley Brothers’ jawn with a “take that, take that” Bad Boy remix, was Angela’s last true feature appearance. Ever. At 40 years old.

During the remainder of the ‘90s, though, her hits were brought back through sampling and remakes. Jay-Z’s “Imaginary Players” sampled “Imaginary Playmates;” Biggie’s “I Love the Dough” sampled “I Love You More” and featured Angela on the hook; Foxy Brown’s “I’ll Be” sampled “I’ll Be Good.” Then in 2000, Avant and Keke Wyatt covered “My First Love” and found bigger chart success than the original release. Their version instantly joined the “cover song might be better than the original” list.

By the mid-2000s, Angela and Ron had divorced behind allegations of Ron cheating (fortunately, in advance of Isley’s sentencing for tax evasion), and Angela revealed she’d been battling cancer. She was diagnosed in stage four and given a dire prognosis, but she is still in remission, still performs, and still testifies. "For me, the only reason I think I'm alive is so I could save other lives," she told TV One’s Unsung. "It's not about me looking cute all the time. It's about my life being spared so I can show people they can make it through a tough situation."

Stephanie Mills

Some would argue that Stephanie Mills shouldn’t be mentioned in a group of under-celebrated singers, and she herself won’t agree to be featured on TV One’s Unsung, but she was clear that she wasn’t going to be a Whitney Houston or Diana Ross level crossover artist.

“I realize that R&B is what I do best, and I’m comfortable with that,” the singer told the LA Times about a decade into her career. “I don’t know how to cross over, and that’s okay because I’m satisfied with my audience. I’d like to have mass appeal, but not at the expense of what I do best.”
Stephanie emits powerful sound from a petite 4’10” frame - what the old folks used to call standing flat-footed and singing. She was a dramatic and high-energy performer, but she could just stand completely still, open her mouth, and blow everyone away. It was a power she possessed from a young age. Before the world knew who Stephanie Mills was, the then nine-year-old with a grown ass voice won Apollo’s legendary Amateur Night six weeks in a row. It’s only fitting that “Home” later became an Amateur Night staple for decades.

Stephanie’s journey didn’t include supporting the greats as a backup or session vocalist. Her story officially begins on the Broadway stage at 16, as the original Dorothy for The Wiz.

Following The Wiz, she released a couple of albums in hopes to capitalize on the momentum of the show - even though Diana Ross scooped her for the high profile movie role. Her third album, produced by Mtume, finally yielded a breakthrough with the disco-esque jam “What Cha’ Gonna Do With My Lovin.’”

But the real gem on the album wasn’t even a single. It was Stephanie and Teddy out-quiet storming each other on “Feel the Fire.” This is how you perform a duet, ladies and gentlemen. Make people wonder if it’s real. Now that I think of it…do duets even exist anymore?

Stephanie’s career story doesn’t include a ton of drama – or at least not public drama. The singer is notoriously private. There’s the standard label shuffle including attempts to evolve sound, some working better than others; and the age-old tale of mishandled funds by management. Also unique in the underappreciated vocalist discussion, Mills has an extensive catalog. She dropped an album nearly every year for 20 years – never more than a two-year gap between releases. Compared to her amount of output, though, she only has a handful of genuine hits. “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” Stephanie’s biggest crossover hit, came early in the game. It’s her only song to break the Top 10 on the Billboard pop chart.

Over the years, she played with a more pop-leaning sound. She even landed the theme song for Chevy Chase’s movie Hitch. But when the pop route failed to produce hits and threatened to alienate her fan base, she went back to R&B for good. One of the musicians who helped her get her swagger back was Angela Winbush. She wrote two hits for Stephanie over two albums, “I Have Learned to Respect the Power of Love,” and “Something in the Way You Make Me Feel.”

A few years ago, Angela joined Stephanie on stage for the song (they’re both still in full voice, by the way). They took it to church.
“You’re looking at survivors,” Stephanie says as Cherelle joins them (they don’t give her a mic, though. I love Cherelle with all my heart, but she ain’t in this particular cohort of vocalists). “My sisters here, we survived this business. Some of us didn’t make it, but we’re here to hold them down!”

Stephanie has a great voice for uptempos and mids, evidenced by her early hits, but ballads – love songs – are where she shines through.

Auntie Stephanie still performs, she’s still a concert draw. But like her sister-singers, she’s hyper-aware of the changes in the music industry over the years, to the detriment of R&B artists. She went viral recently for her candid commentary on Sister Circle about the appropriation of black music, and how quickly things change for an artist when they don’t have a hit.

Deniece Williams

The google header for Deniece Williams’ website reads: “4x Grammy Winner | Deniece Williams | Pop Star,” and she was kind of a pop star - but people under 40 may not remember. Williams’ career pedigree is crazy: another Wonderlove/Stevie alum, signed to Earth, Wind and Fire founder Maurice White’s production company, and produced by major names in R&B and soul during her career height including David Foster (before he was the David Foster), Ray Parker Jr.,Thom Bell and George Duke.

Deniece also sounds like she could be Minnie Ripperton’s vocal baby sister, and that’s not completely an accident. While the two have the same vocal range – including an unreal whistle register – they also had the same vocal arranger, Charles Stephney, Maurice White’s partner in Kalimba Productions. Deniece was also a session singer on Ripperton’s Perfect Angel album. The songstress’ first single, “Free,” feels like it could have been a Minnie track, but it was all Deniece. She and three other Wonderlove singers wrote it while playing around in rehearsal, and they performed it when Stevie showcased the singers during the show. Hearing “Free” during a Stevie concert drove Maurice White to sign her.

The uptempo hit No. 2 on the R&B charts and cracked the Top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100. Deniece was already a mom of two who’d been through a failed marriage when she recorded the song, possibly lending to the twist that makes “Free” so intriguing. The song is about love, passion and even ecstasy, but without ties – at the woman’s urging, “’cause I’ll only be here for a while.” Listeners may not even realize it’s a lowkey curve, because they’re caught up in the Earth, Wind and Fire-backed groove. “I think it was a combination of the song itself and what the song said lyrically,” Deniece said of the track’s success and endurance. “Somebody told me that I was the first woman they heard in music that (said) at the time that ‘you don’t have to stay.’”

Deniece co-wrote on each song for This is Niecy, as she did for most of her music throughout her career. A couple of other songs on the album had a showing on the R&B charts, but “Free” drove the project’s success.

Almost immediately after This is Niecy was released, Charles Stephney died suddenly. Music discussions give a lot of weight to writers and producers, but great vocal arrangement can make or break a song, and make the best use of a singer’s talent. Maurice White produced Deniece’s follow up album, Song Bird, by himself, and even though it was a moderate success on the R&B charts, she later said it felt like something was missing. “I think the success of my first project was because it was music for the expression for my voice,” she explained in an interview. “We went out and we did some different music, and then he brought in another arranger, who’s very very gifted and talented but was not correct for me… It wasn’t the same arrangement or the same feel… I think we did a project that was good, but we didn’t do a project that had the magic of the first one, because the players and the music changed.”

Deniece landed her first No. 1 pop hit paired with Johnny Mathis for the ballad “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” which also hit the top of the R&B and Adult Contemporary charts.

The single’s runaway success led to a full duet album, and then an additional pairing later on for one of the great sitcom theme songs of the ‘80s, when TV show themes were whole compositions.

Maurice eventually talked to Thom Bell, producer for the Stylistics, Delfonics, and key producer and arranger for Philadelphia International Records, about working with Deniece. With Thom, the magic that was missing for Song Bird was back. “There’s only one other person in my musical life that has understood my music the way Charles Stephney did as an arranger,” Deniece has claimed, “and he is Thom Bell.”

The Thom Bell era netted a few hits for Niecy, including one of her signature songs. Deniece wrote “Silly” years prior to recording it, but couldn’t quite get it to the right place. “I said ‘Let me work on it a couple of minutes’ and I musically rewrote it,” Thom explained in an interview. “I rewrote it as an arranger, not a songwriter.” Again, the importance of a master arranger.

Deniece’s cover of “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle,” the first secular song she learned growing up in a strict Christian household, was another winner, reaching No. 1 on the R&B charts and Top 10 on the Hot 100 chart.

Despite success, Thom stopped working with Denise after their second collaboration. The deeply spiritual singer, who’d included inspirational songs on each of her albums, was shifting her focus back to God after an experience while performing at a gospel concert in 1980. Bell shared recently that it was a little too much for him. “She was going through a spiritual awakening, and religion is really not my thing.” The producer, who’s worked with top divas including Dionne Warwick and Phyllis Hyman, gave Deniece her props, though. “She’s a fantastic singer. You very rarely ever can find a singer that can do things that she does. Performing is not what she does good,” (Thom Bell is also a little shady) “but she’s a great singer.”

Deniece was, indeed, experiencing a spiritual re-awakening, but she had one more act in her career before she devoted herself to gospel completely, and it was the biggest act yet. Maurice White’s imprint shut down and Deniece was moved to Columbia Records proper. She’d given producer George Duke a song for the group Sister Sledge, but the track prompted him to suggest they work together instead. The partnership led to the biggest – and last – hit of Deniece’s career.

“Let’s Hear it for the Boy” was the featured track on the Footloose soundtrack (which opens an entire black music segment for the party game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon), and was a No. 1 hit at pop, R&B and dance. The Let’s Hear it for the Boy album also featured one of the great Black History Month program songs of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. “Black Butterfly” wasn’t a hit single at the time, but it’s one of Williams’ signature songs now.

The album was Deniece’s career peak, and her descent followed immediately. Her next project didn’t connect how her previous work had. Now that she was in the bigger label system without designated producers guiding her projects, her music lost focus. “At the record label there was a big argument that would keep going on that she’s an R&B artist but she’s selling pop. And the pop department would say that she may sell pop, but she’s an R&B artist,” she explained in an interview. “They couldn’t just make up their minds. I kind of kept getting tossed around. “

Deniece had already started her own production company to focus on gospel acts, and was building a roster. She’d also annoyed the 1985 Grammy Awards telecast producers and surprised viewers when she took the stage and sang “God is Truly Amazing” instead of “Let’s Hear It For The Boy.”

After the Hot on the Tail album, she turned her attention exclusively to gospel music, where she’s been active since. R&B and pop landed her No. 1 hits, but gospel earned her career four Grammy awards, starting with her first foray into the genre, I Surrender All.


Meli’sa Morgan is an auntie favorite, but she’s significantly unsung. The Julliard-trained artist was once being watched as the next black songstress to break on the heels of Whitney Houston and Sade. Her debut single, a smoky, all-soul-everything cover of Prince’s “Do Me,” catapulted her to the top of the R&B charts for weeks, and led to modest pop success for both the single and the album. Her version also sparks serious debate among even die-hard Prince fans about whether it’s possibly the better rendition.

The LA Times, in a 1986 feature they opened by recounting incidents of people confusing Meli’sa for Whitney Houston on the street, said of Morgan: “With all due respect to Houston and Sade, Morgan may be the best young soul singer in the business. With her sultry, smoldering style she falls somewhere between super-soulful Chaka Khan and pop-oriented Houston.” (Melis’sa was a background and/or session singer for both Chaka and Whitney as well as Melba Moore.)

Meli’sa also co-wrote all but one of the album’s tracks, and co-produced - a role she had to push for. “I had to fight to get to produce,” she told the LA Times in the same interview. “Capitol (Records) said I was busy enough with the singing and songwriting…But I wouldn’t accept that. I had exposure to producing, enough to know I could do it. My attitude was that if they wanted those songs to be recorded, they had to let me be involved in producing them. I just wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

Morgan had a couple of impactful singles on her subsequent albums, including “Love Changes,” which was featured on both her and Kashif’s individual records. But she said she eventually took a self-imposed hiatus after hip hop started edging her soul sound out of relevance. “When I went on hiatus, the industry was really changing,” she later shared. “I had signed directly to Capitol because I had a production deal with them. All of a sudden, MC Hammer came along, and then hip-hop and rap music were taking the industry by storm, and in a totally different direction. And basically trying to keep up with that – you really had to have it integrated into your style and a whole new look – and keep my style of music was a conflict of interest.”

Ironically, hip-hop has been key to keeping Meli’sa’s music relevant. Do Me Baby opened with “Fool’s Paradise,” now one of her signature songs, thanks to Jay-Z’s sample flip for “Knock the Hustle.” I mean, it’s also a legitimate bop, though. Throw this on at any NYC party above 110th street or in the outer boroughs and watch what happens.

The obscurity of these women in the annals of R&B history is culturally tragic, not just because they could sing other artists under the table, but because they were complete, truly gifted creatives. Many of them wrote, played, produced, and were genuine collaborators with their own visions for their artistry - at a time when female artists weren’t easily able to rock like that, period, let alone black female artists. In the modern music era they’d be heralded as bosses, and mavens. Instead, folks barely know the depths of their talents. I hope we’ve helped remedy that a bit. Also, shout out to Stevie and Chaka for their touring companies basically being Hogwarts for singing-ass-singers. I believe they’re the two names you’ll come across the most not only in the stories we’ve shared, but with additional talent from the decade if you take a deeper dive. And after reading this, you should do exactly that. As I said earlier, there are so many more artists from the era whose stories aren’t often told, and they deserve to be heard.


#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

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The 62nd Annual Grammy Awards was met with controversy this year thanks to a lawsuit against the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences from ousted CEO, Deborah Dugan. Through her explosive claims and allegations, the voting process has gotten even less transparent— and we’re left with more questions and mysteries than answers. Still, artists and media moved forward, and the focus has temporarily shifted back to the music and the awards.

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Sound Check: Bobbito Plays The Tracks, Kobe Bryant States The Facts

"Hey, Jon B's in the house!" says Kobe Bryant, laughing, when I step into New York's Hit Factory.

"Money, you trying to snap?" I ask. "That's why you're wearing bell-bottoms." It's no surprise Kobe and I get along. We share passions—for hip-hop and basketball—and the same high school alma mater, Lower Merion, in Ardmore, Pa. Although I graduated twelve years before he did, I felt much pride when he made our school a household name in 1996, the year he jumped from his senior year in high school to the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers.

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Public Enemy—"Brothers Gonna Work It Out" (Def Jam, 1990)

B: Do you know this song?

K.B.: It's Public Enemy. Everybody knows them. Back in the day, me and my cousin used to do the Flavor Flav dance! My grandma would be like, "Kobe, what are you doing? You got an itch down there?" I'd be like, Grandma, it's the new dance.

B: I used to work at Def Jam—from '89 to '93—and Flav would come into the office and literally take it over. Nothing could be done, workwise, while he was there. One time, he got on top of my desk and was doing his dance. He was like that all the time. It wasn't an act for the stage or videos. That's just Flav.

De La Soul Featuring Pete Rock and InI––"Stay Away" (unreleased bootleg, 1998)

B: This record is beautiful. Do you like it?

K.B.: Hell yeah. It makes you want to listen and do nothing else. Not like some other songs—you hear them and want to punch the table. Even the lyrics have a melody. De La always bring it lyrically. You can always expect that they'll rhyme honestly about what they see.

B: I can listen to their first album, which is ten years old, and still not know what the fuck they're talking about. Regardless, their voices, delivery, flow, and intelligence make them one of my favorites of all time.

K.B.: When one of their songs comes on, you have to listen. But today, a lot of people don't have the patience for that.

B: Do you have a different name for yourself as an MC?

K.B.: Kobe, plain and simple.

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K.B..: Cheizaw. It stands for Canon Homo sapiens Eclectic Iconic Zaibatsu Abstract Words. Canon is the ruler of the spiritual body. Homo sapien is the [scientific] term for human beings. Eclectic means choosing the best of very diverse styles. Icon is a symbol.  Zaibatsu is a Japanese word for powerful family. Abstract makes concentration very difficult. Words, meaning lyrics. That's Cheizaw—that's how we're putting it down. Six members, all from Philly...Illadelph!

4 Hero—"Loveless" featuring Ursula Rucker (Talkin Loud/Mercury, 1998)

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B: It's a drum n' bass group called 4 Hero, out of London. The poet, Ursula, is from Philly. She's on the Roots' first two albums, Do You Want More?!!!??! (DGC, 1995) and Illadelph Halflife (Geffen, 1996), and I hear she does a poem on their upcoming release too. She's ill—on some emotional poetry shit.

K.B.: Yeah, man. I love poetry. Don't you have a famous [poetry] spot out here [in New York]?

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K.B.: It makes me...[snaps his fingers and shimmies with his shoulders]. You know what I mean? Ha, ha!

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Grammy Contender Lucky Daye Is Waving R&B's Melodic Flag With Pride

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“I got a chance to get everything out, like, my deepest emotions and feelings. To finally say it without getting cut off, or to finally say it and not get a rebuttal before I actually try to get people to hear it… Most times, I get feedback and it discourages me, [but] this time, it was too late for anybody to discourage me since the album was done,” he says. “I was already like, ‘I love it, so I don’t care what anybody thinks’. To me, it felt good to get a response from people [but] a positive one, for once. I’m still adjusting, [so] I’m kind of new to how it’s moving and I’m new to the people liking stuff from me. People don’t really get it, it’s a different side of life that I’ve never been on.”

Daye, previously known as D. Brown during a run of being a songwriter and background vocalist, follows a tradition of fellow songwriter-turned-full fledged R&B artists including D’Angelo and Faith Evans. However, he assures that crafting music behind the scenes wasn’t his end goal, as collaborating with producer D’Mile ignited his passion of re-pursuing solo stardom. In a recent Rolling Stone profile of D’Mile, the producer noticed an uptick in contemporary R&B paying homage to the 70’s, notably psychedelic cut “Redbone”, which snagged Childish Gambino a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance in 2018.

Both Daye and D’Mile followed suit, with their own formulaic reverence to 70’s funk and soul on Painted, ushering in a modern take. Daye mentions that while D’Mile is knowledgeable of music theory, it was Daye’s “chemical imbalance” over D’Mile’s production and radical instrumentation that essentially made them musical soulmates. “When it comes to music, [it] will teach consciousness in the body to be open, to be understanding of everything. To have multiple perceptions, it’s rare, and [D’Mile] has that,” Daye says. “If anything else, we know that at the end of the day, it’s all going to boil down to music. We’re here to do something on Earth at this age and time, and I’m indebted to him.”

For long-time fans of Daye, some were initially surprised once playing the album, as songs featured on his introductory EPs I and II were featured prominently on Painted. For Daye, he wanted to ease his listeners into living with his music for a while longer before presenting the remainder of his debut, unexpectedly recommended by a rap icon. “I didn’t want [fans] to listen to it and be like, ‘yo, it’s a jumble of a bunch of mess’, because honestly, that’s how I felt at the time. I just felt like, ‘they’re not gonna like it’. If we’re going to really put it out and [make] it a big deal, I don’t want to mess this up. The best advice was putting it out piece by piece. I talked to Nicki Minaj about that and that’s where the idea originally came from,” he says, referencing that he accompanied a friend to a studio session with Minaj.

“This was probably eight months before [Painted] came out. We’re sitting in there, they couldn’t come up with [any] ideas and she was like, ‘Why you sitting over there quiet? What you humming? Sounds like you got something if you wanna hop in, you can.’ I just hopped in and freestyled a whole song.”

Taking Minaj’s advice made for the organic success of his EPs, and a gradual acclimation of ‘Daye Ones’--a token for Daye’s dedicated fanbase--especially those who witnessed his performances during a streak of three tours in the past year. After joining Ella Mai and Kiana Lede during Mai’s debut tour, Daye launched into The Painted Tour, later heading to Australia with Khalid during The Spirit Tour. Daye admits the stage is where he’s most carefree, but that he’s still getting acclimated with finding time to rest. “It’s so crazy because I look around [and] sometimes I’ll push my friends too hard, or I’ll push other people too hard because of my expectations,” he says. “Fresh off the Khalid tour, I didn’t sleep for a week, I was like ‘I don’t know what’s going on’. I’m calling doctors, Kehlani’s helping me like, ‘maybe you should drink that’, I just realized it was adrenaline. It’s hard to go to sleep when you’re running off that kind of energy.”

Daye’s adrenaline and charismatic stage presence made his mainly-female audiences buckle at their knees, even intimately crooning select attendees to violin-driven track “Concentrate” at shows. But it was the track “Roll Some Mo” that stood apart from his catalog, instantly becoming a fan favorite and soundtracking The Photograph, which premieres on Valentine’s Day next month. Though “Roll Some Mo” is beloved for its penchant in marijuana-infused desire, Daye says he initially rejected the song being featured on Painted. “That was the fastest song I did. Most times when I write fast, I’m not trying and I felt like I didn’t put my all into it. That’s why, to me, “Roll Some Mo” wasn’t strong. I felt like I could do better, but everyone else was like ‘that’s the one’,” he says. “So I should just write and not think, that’s a lesson I’ve learned from misjudging “Roll Some Mo”: don’t overthink and do not try to make it perfect.”

Long accustomed to songwriting, Daye had a natural inclination to join the ranks of Keep Cool Records, especially the intensity of their songwriting boot camps. Prior guests of the boot camps have included Masego and Baby Rose, and Daye mentions that he also attended recording sessions of Revenge of the Dreamers III on their final day. “It’s so much pressure at writing camps like [Keep Cool Records] because there are so many people that are amazing. They go in with that mindset--and I understand that because I can write, as well--I just don’t do it with that type of intensity, because my confidence has been killed in that area,” Daye says. “Being in a room with those people, you learn different ways to make music and that’s the beauty [of it]. Music is art, it’s in me and I can’t do nothing about that, so to be in that environment is paradise.”

With writing credits for Keith Sweat, Boyz II Men and Keke Palmer years prior to releasing Painted, it was mentorship from Mary J. Blige during recording sessions for Blige’s 2017 album Strength of a Woman, that aided Daye with honing in on lyrical simplicity. Co-writing “Love Yourself” and “U + Me (Love Session)”, with admiration for Blige, Daye even attended her 2018 Walk of Fame commencement. “[Blige] always speaks vulnerability and she always taught me a lot about changing words [for them] to make more sense,” Daye says. “I’m way more abstract than I was when Painted came out, and she’d always bring me back, like, ‘why don’t you just say it like this?’ I’m like, ‘that’s ghetto’. (laughs) She’d be like, ‘but it’s good’. I’d be like, ‘Well, alright, I got it; just do what I normally do if I was talking to somebody.’”

With Blige’s guidance in mind, Daye knew that he wanted the apex of Painted to revolve around intricacies of love, his previous relationships being the basis of the album, notably, overexerting himself while in those relationships. “On Painted, I wanted to convey love as being misunderstood and not what you always expect it to be. I feel like we watch all of these things around us and we got these high expectations of what love is supposed to be and it’s really an illusion. When you find somebody who’s actually a real person and they don’t meet your illusion, they fail in your eyes,” he says, subtly warning women to beware of overzealous suitors. “I just wanted to say ‘it’s fine to not be perfect, it’s fine to be normal’. Being normal is actually what love is, everything else is extra. You can’t always exhaust yourself. I’ve exhausted myself and I wanted to portray that on the album, like, I’ve done that already. I’ve tried everything I could to try to stay in love and try to be in love. It allowed me to fall in love and get my heartbroken, and that created more content for me and it created more depth for my character.”

With room to create meaningful content, though not intentional, Daye withheld from having collaborations on Painted. For many listeners, the “Roll Some Mo” remix featuring Ty Dolla $ign and Wale was the first time they heard Daye accompanied by featured guests. “I don’t think I had any power to even get anybody that wanted to get on my record. I would like to think that the music industry would hear good music and want to get with it because it’s good to them, not necessarily good to popular people,” he says. “I wanted to at least do my first album complete and not wait on features. I think all great artists can do an album with no features and you’ll still be able to listen to the whole album. I don’t care who it is, if someone’s not good on my record, I’m not putting it out.”

While Painted didn’t lack in vulnerability, Daye is open to the possibility of having features on his sophomore album. With his majorly-female audience in mind, he wants to reintroduce an influx of female features to create melodic balance. “The second album might be a little bit different. I’m probably gonna do an album that has a great amount of features on it and I’m working on that right now. We’re reaching for gold,” he says. “When it comes to singing, girls are listening to me. Most guys, they have too much ego to listen to me, I’m too real. They don’t want to feel soft. I feel like if get girls featured, it’ll make more sense for me than male features because I talk about love a lot. Ain’t too many guys I know that’s gonna open up like that on a record. That’s one of my goals, I want to do a lot of songs with girls like Marvin Gaye did.”

With music videos traditionally having a cinematic, thoroughly crafted feel, Daye shares that a visual album is soon to come, with a slew of screenplays already written. Initially wanting to release a visual album alongside Painted, he’s tentatively reserving it for his sophomore album. Though he’s mapped out his plans for 2020, Daye says that he’s willing to let go of his reigns to get better acquainted with fans. “I’m gonna make myself more uncomfortable this year when it comes to putting myself out there--controlling less of what I think I should be controlling--and just be more free and just be present. I want them to know, if there’s anything I should do, I’m open [to it].”

During a generation of R&B when artists are arguably most hands-on with their creative intention, Daye fits right in, nominated in nearly every R&B category of the 2020 Grammys. Hinting at surprise single before the ceremony, while arguably a veteran, Daye assures that his journey is far from over. “The fact that [artists] can reach so many people, just with one button, that’s awesome. Most people have to climb, they climb a long way from city to city and it takes years just to get to a level. I have millions of views in a year, and I believe [“Roll Some Mo”] might be gold. Just to do that in one year, being able to touch so many people, I feel like we’re getting closer,” he says. “It’s come back around, for sure, [but] there’s way more to accomplish. I plan on having at least eleven albums, and I feel satisfied, kind of, but this is the beginning. I just started, it’s the first day.”

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