When SWV nestled in the R&B scene with their hit debut, It’s About Time, a shift was on the horizon. Female R&B artists were starting to incorporate more hip-hop elements into their aesthetic and sound. TLC, the Atlanta group known for their tomboy swagger and crossover appeal, were the first to have mainstream success. Their debut album, Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip, which was released in February 1992, blended elements of funk, hip-hop, and R&B that were a refrain from the ballads heard from female R&B artists at the time. Then, in July of that year, Mary J. Blige, the songstress from Yonkers who’d later become universally known as the queen of hip-hop soul, released her debut album, What’s the 411, a pioneering work that introduced listeners to Blige’s seamless capability of singing soul music over rap beats.
So, when it was SWV’s turn in October 1992, the stage for female R&B artists to expand their style beyond the genre’s origins was already set, which made it easier for the group’s new jack swing sound to be accepted. With sing-along friendly songs like “Weak” and “Right Here” and gospel-infused vocal harmonies juxtaposed against the group’s pervasive street style, It’s About Time paved the way for R&B girl groups — especially those who grew up in the church — to have a style outside of the genre’s traditional roots. Yeah, SWV had a tough attitude, but they could also out-sing anyone in any given moment. And audiences resonated with that. It’s About Time is certified triple platinum.
However, for their sophomore album, SWV completely changed their tone. Released on April 23, 1996, New Beginning posed as a re-introduction to the New York City-bred group as they opted for a more authentic R&B sound. Although the album still embodied the group’s around-the-way flair, its production was more toned down, leaving room for the group to showcase their controlled, high-pitched voices in ways that they couldn’t do on the upbeat It’s About Time. The aptly-titled New Beginning was SWV’s magnum opus because it illustrated how easily the group could expand their sound while cementing their position as R&B’s premier “sisters with voices.”
The lyrics on the album’s opening title track set the tone:
“This is our new beginning/Gotta make some new decisions/No more time for hesitation/Jesus is our inspiration.”
In case listeners didn’t catch the hint from the album’s title, SWV reassured their audience on the intro that this was, in fact, a new SWV. A sexier, more mature SWV. When It’s About Time was released in the early ’90s, the group was barely past their adolescence (Cheryl “Coko” Gamble was 22, Tamara “Taj” Johnson-George was 21, and Leanne “Lelee” Lyons was only 19). By the time New Beginning dropped in 1996, the trio was well into their mid-twenties. They traded their baggy clothes and snapbacks for pearls, fur coats, and short dresses. The new image was a logical change because, after all, the group took a nearly four-year hiatus between the first and second album. Additionally, it took the group two years to record New Beginning compared to the six months they had to record It’s About Time. SWV had time to really craft and perfect what they wanted to create next with New Beginning.
Taj told Billboard in 1996:
“We’ve all grown a lot since our first album, and we wanted to show that. So in addition to not looking so boyish fashion-wise, the lyrics on our songs are more mature — which is a direct reflection of us since we had a big part in the writing.”
Unlike on It’s About Time, where most of the songwriting was in the hands of record producer Brian Alexander Morgan, SWV wrote several songs on New Beginning, including their chart-topping lead single “You’re the One,” “Whatcha Need,” and “I’m So in Love.” New Beginning marked the debut of SWV’s creative independence. And it showed.
Take “You’re the One,” the group’s third no. 1 on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. The song just sounds like it’s coming from a more confident trio — a group of women who know exactly what they want and aren’t afraid to go get it. “I know that you’re somebody else’s guy/But these feelings that I have for you I can’t deny/She doesn’t treat you the way you want her to/ So come on stop running, I wanna get with you,” Coko sings on the opening verse. It’s a bold declaration that the group makes as they illustrate how far they’d go to be with a man they love, regardless of how his current partner feels.
The messaging in “You’re the One” is miles ahead of their youthful smash “Weak,” on which the group characterizes teenaged “puppy love.” SWV was past teenage crushes; they were grown women.
No song on New Beginning exemplifies SWV’s maturity more than “Use Your Heart,” which was written and produced by legendary duo The Neptunes. If listeners weren’t already aware of SWV’s departure from their innocent sound, then “Use Your Heart” certainly made it clear. Throughout the song, the group explores the sublime connection of pure romantic intimacy with their partners (“Alone/ You and I intertwine/ Refreshing conversation on the mind/ As we stare/We both seek and hope to find/real love purified.”) It’s sensually poetic. If Jill Scott’s 2001 single “The Way” describes the day after making passionate love with a partner, then SWV’s “Use Your Heart” viscerally sets the scene for the night before.
Additionally, the soothing beat instantly lures listeners into the vocal trance that the group induces throughout the song. Unlike songs on their debut, where Coko is the dominant singer, “Use Your Heart” features an equitable mesh of the trio’s individual voices. Coko does take the lead verse, while Taj sings the bridge, and the group’s three-part harmony glistens throughout the nearly five-minute single.
On “It’s All About You,” Taj takes the lead, which was a first for SWV, while Lelee is handed the mic on the groovy “Don’t Waste Your Time.” Songs like “That’s What I’m Here For” and “Fine Time” highlight the group’s harmony more than just one individual voice. In 2016, Coko talked to Vibe Magazine about how underrated “Fine Time” is, saying, “We’ve been pretty fortunate to have a lot of hits. On the first album, everything that was released either went gold or platinum. The second album did pretty well, but a song that I thought should’ve been released was ‘Fine Time.’”
In a 1997 Vibe profile of the group, journalist Tonya Pendleton wrote about how the group’s previous era was the antithesis of that newfound sound and independence heard on New Beginning:
“Like three Dorothys thrust into Oz, they were catapulted into the stratosphere by the success of their 1992 debut It’s About Time. SWV found themselves with too much, too fast.”
Lead singer Coko Gamble furthers this point in the interview by saying, “When we first started out, we were silly — depending on other people to take care of our business. When things started going wrong, we were wondering why. Then we realized we were half-ass. We were starstruck. And we had to get over that.”
On New Beginning, SWV realize that they’re the stars of their own show. SWV knew that their style, voices and flair was all that they truly needed. And New Beginning was the first album on which they could truly explore that.
SWV’s sophomore album didn’t commercially perform as well as It’s About Time. New Beginning was only certified platinum, compared to It’s About Time’s triple-platinum status. The latter also had more charting hits than the former. But that doesn’t erase how the album ushered in a monumental shift for the group, one in which they took agency over their own voices while still working together to do it. Perhaps it’s why they ended the album with an empowering message for listeners on “Soul Intact-Interlude.”
“Keep your soul, intact/Don’t let nothing hold you back/Keep your head up towards the sky’/ It’s gonna be rough, you can’t give up/Hold on.”
DeAsia Paige is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. Her work covers music, culture and identity and has been featured in publications like VICE, The Nation , Blavity, and Bitch. You can find her on Twitter: @deasia_paige
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