In our new monthly series, UD will take an in-depth overview of influential albums and movements of the past. This month we are reloading Shola Ama’s classic late 90’s debut album ‘Much Love’, which turns 25 this year... Chris Kelly reports.
As with all music genres, there is an age-old debate surrounding a sound and its definitive best years. The answer, of course, will vary, depending on the musical category and who you’re talking to. There is, however, one exception to the rule – R&B. And one universally recognised truth: the 90s was unquestionably its golden age.
As the late 80s approached and the 90s hung on the horizon, the R&B category in the states was visibly out of step with the culture. It had become stuck in a Netflix-style Russian Doll loop, in a hungover haze, unable to navigate its way out of the disco and funk party era that had set its pace throughout the late 70s and 80s. As a result, the genre lost touch and relevancy with the times.
Concurrently and in stark contrast, hip-hop had commercially established itself as a mainstream player. Its meteoric rise continued to dominate, setting the pop cultural pace. It influenced everything in its wake, art, fashion, film and language, with portmanteaus and vernacular phrases that became part of a common dialect. Simultaneously R&B’s subgenre offshoot was anointed as ‘new jack swing’; The sound hailed from New York’s Harlem neighbourhood. Combining the street rap image with production elements from hip-hop and dance and mixing them with silky and sexy R&B vocals and danceable beats. The sound was pioneered and popularised by producer and songwriter Teddy Reily and by R&B’s bad boy Bobby Brown, R&B group Bell Dev Devoe, with their seminal anthems ‘My Prerogative’ and ‘Poison‘. The commercial mainstream success of the new soundwave gave contemporary R&B mouth-to-mouth. And unbeknownst at the time, it created the blueprint framework between R&B and hip-hop.
As is often the case with subgenres, the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and it wasn’t long before the new jack swing sound evolved and splintered into 90s slow jams and neo-soul. Unlike its swing predecessor, the sound was a full-blown female assault led by; Erykah Badu, Mary J Blige, teenagers Brandy, Monica and Aaliyah, and powerhouse girl groups like SWV, En Vogue and Total. Meanwhile, back in Britain, the R&B sound and scene that was established was a far cry from the states; acid-jazz, which originated from the rare groove movement, represented a thoroughly British sound led by bands Soul II Soul, The Brand New Heavies and D‘influence. The sound combined funk, soul and hip-hop with an injection of jazz and disco wrapped with velvety R&B vocals.
As the US R&B sound hit Britain’s shores, its traction in the early days was slow; some R&B artists would sporadically impact the charts, like SWV in the summer of ’93 with their debut single ‘Right Here‘, peaking at number two on the charts. There was no YouTube, TikTok, Spotify or MTV base – hello, it’s the 90s? Fans of American R&B were limited in their music discovery options. Channel 4’s music series Flava became the ultimate resource for the freshest music video drops. Young British R&B music artists, we’re keen to replicate the sound. London girl group Eternal, marketed as Britain’s answer to En Vogue, swept the charts with their debut single ‘Stay‘. After the success of their debut album, the group failed to take hold and spent many years in obscurity before reemerging later in the 90s. It would be another three years before another British R&B act would command the mainstream charts. Enter Mark Morrison, whose debut single ‘Return of The Mack‘ hit the mainstream like a sledgehammer in ’96 —bagging the much-coveted number 1 position. Morrison’s subsequent single release, ‘Moan and Grown,’ failed to gain the same momentum. British R&B looked like it was about to enter the wilderness, grappling with an identity crisis.
One of the reasons the 90s transatlantic R&B sound failed to prosper was the genre’s failure to connect with British youth culture. Rap faced a similar problem and was only finally absorbed when UK rappers flipped the sound by dropping American accents in favour of their own. Once the flow and dialect became recognisably British, its connection was secured, as seen in the last two decades with grime and drill.
After the UK R&B sound failed at a mainstream level, record labels stopped investing and developing talent that represented its sound. So when a young 15-year-old called Shola Ama, hailing from Kilburn in North West London, hit the scene, it took everyone by surprise. Her Cinderella story of being discovered became the stuff of folklore. She was overheard singing at Hammersmith tube station by music producer Kwame Kwaten, one of the co-founders of the acclaimed acid jazz band D-Influence. He immediately recognised her talent and signed the young songstress. Shola released the track, ‘celebrate‘, before signing with Warner Music on her 16th birthday. Her first official release for the label, ‘You’re The One I Love‘, didn’t become a commercial success but succeeded at highlighting her talent as an R&B artist. Within the year, her most successful single to date, ‘You Might Need Somebody‘, was a cover of a Turley Richards 80s soul track. The song catapulted Shola to stardom, peaking at number 3 on the charts and becoming a lingering presence for almost two months; you couldn’t move that spring without hearing her distinctive vocals.
Britain hadn’t produced a young teen R&B counterpart star like Brandy or Monica, but suddenly, we had one. And Shola was it. She combined bonafide talent and authentic credibility during a period of oversaturated manufactured pop acts that dominated the times. She didn’t try to emulate the look and sound of her US R&B peers; Ama’s vibe was a thoroughly London one, accompanied by a french manicure and the 90s nail piercing trend. When her debut album ‘Much Love’ dropped, she joined the platinum club and earned four top-ten hits, a Brit award for Best British Female, and two MOBO awards for Best Newcomer and Best R&B Act in 98. Not only was it a win for the culture, but it also solidified her status as head of the UK R&B monarchy.
The Much Love album is a ’90s time capsule reflecting the decade’s definitive R&B sound. Her soulfulness is at odds with the baby-face look that adorn its cover. The twelve-track body of work is a nostalgia-filled trip filled with bouncy beats, sultry slow jams, melismatic harmonies, ornate riffs and flavoursome flows. It showcased that the UK could make R&B its own, with a vocal talent that could compete with the states. The album explored themes of desire and the innocence of love and loss played out from a teen’s perspective. The album has many standout tracks. Including ‘Who’s Loving My Baby‘, ‘All Mine‘ and ‘I Love Your Ways’, and Ama’s outstanding cover rendition of ‘You Might Need Somebody‘ is as commanding now as it was then.
Although her second studio album, two years later, didn’t capture the success of its predecessor, perhaps in part due to its lean towards a heavier American-produced sound, it was during a period when garage rave culture was exploding with British youth culture. One of the album’s single releases ‘Imagine‘ was given a remix by garage producers ‘Club Asylum‘ and became one of the genre-defining tracks of the era.
Additionally, her collaboration with Dancehall artist Glamma Kid on his single ‘Taboo’ (say ooh ooh) had been given the garage treatment by producer MJ Cole.
Subsequently, both remixes have become bigger than the originals. By the start of the naughties, Shola had made the challenging manoeuvre of transitioning from a mainstream pop act to a credible underground artist and was crowned queen of the garage scene as a result. As genres always do, it was about to evolve (soon resulting in grime). Recognising the genre’s potential early on, she became a long-term collaborator and supporter of the scene. Collaborating with the likes of Giggs, Ghetts, Devlin and Wiley.
The success of her debut album, Much Love, marked a watershed moment for British R&B. It paved the way for all the female R&B acts that came after her. With a career spanning 25 years, Shola Ama holds the vocal keys to the memory box of an entire generation. And for that, we say much love…
Words by Chris Kelly
Chris is a freelance music journalist and feature writer with a focus on emerging and established artists, subcultures, the art world and mental health. Chris has multifaceted expertise as a media and creative specialist working with your favourite brands and helping them to embed themselves within the culture through strategic and entertaining content for brands, businesses and organisations.