On This Day in 1990... Soul II Soul released Vol. II: 1990 – A New Decade
When you’ve lost a vocalist as talented as Caron Wheeler - the singer responsible for fronting classics like 'Back to Life' and 'Keep on Movin’' - you might be forgiven for losing direction. But Soul II Soul were always more of a collective than a group with fixed members, its sound system roots lending itself to a fluid set-up, and founding member Jazzie B was always a man with a plan. His motto of “A happy face, a thumpin' bass, for a lovin' race” rang clear and loud as the Soul II Soul sound took hold of the charts, giving industry execs no place to hide from the Black British music scene (although they continue to try their best to avoid it).
With a multi-platinum selling album and two certified soul classics delivered in 1989, a year later came Vol. II: 1990 – A New Decade. It’s an optimistic title that reflected the mood of both group and nation at the time; Soul II Soul were brimming with confidence after their success changed the course of British mainstream music, while wider society had initial hope for something different after the drudgery of the 70s and 80s (a feeling that peaked with Britpop mid-decade). Not that their debut album was downcast by comparison, but there is a sense of belief about their second collection of songs that pulls together a more unified sound, despite losing their star player (Wheeler wanted to pursue a solo career).
It wasn’t just Wheeler who had departed the group ahead of their second album, with Do'Reen and Rose Windross (who featured on 'Fairplay') also leaving. In came the likes of Marcia Lewis, Lamya, Victoria Wilson-James and "The First Lady of House" Kym Mazelle. The inclusion of the latter is probably the most interesting, as A New Decade has more of a dance flavour than its predecessor. Although it can be overlooked just how frequently the first record incorporated house-based ideas – and understandably so, given the music was about to explode into the mainstream and the importance of dance music to the Black club scene in the UK.
You can hear some of those classic late-80s/early 90s piano stabs in the lead single (and throughout the album) 'Get a Life'. It’s another great example of how Jazzie and co-producer Nellee Hooper were able to bring together the eclectic sound of a modern Britain, blending RnB and rap with Caribbean influences, finished off with an elegant string arrangement on the intro and chorus. Jazzie’s spoken word/laid-back rap-style inflects slight touches of Americanism in his tone, although it remains largely British-sounding, and is still light-years ahead of how 99% of rappers from these shores were representing themselves at the time.
‘People’ was the third single off the album and performed well in the dance charts, a house driven tune that doesn’t have much to say lyrically but is held together by a catchy chorus and Marcia Lewis’ powerful vocals. Either side are two solid mid-tempo album cuts; on 'Love Come Through' the late Lamya offers shades of Massive Attack’s Shara Nelson at times, while 'Missing You', the sole song featuring Mazelle, calls back to Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ with its intro drum pattern (added to with a whisper of “Get up, get up”). The seductive two-step groove slips under the control of Mazelle who at times sounds like she is fighting to contain the urge to let rip.
The choices of three of the next four tracks seem a little strange, heading down an instrumental route and away from the good songwriting that came before. ‘Courtney Blows’ has an Acid Jazz vibe – another scene that was about to blow up through Jamiroquai, The Brand New Heavies, Omar and the like – and opens ears to the sound of British jazz legend Courtney Pine. The tracks are cool, chill out moments, but filling up almost a third of the album with non-vocal tracks slows momentum. The Wilson-James-led ‘A Dreams a Dream’ does what it can to restore the flow, the album’s second single going down as another Soul II Soul classic.
Yo! MTV Rap’s Fab 5 Freddy pops up on the intro and outro to the album’s closing track ‘Our Time Has Now Come’ with Jazzie maintaining his image of being the cool, calm and collected voice behind the group. He would oversee another 3 albums up until 1997, with singles like the gospel-inspired ‘Joy’ and swingy ‘Love Enuff’ keeping them in and around the top ten until they disbanded (they still occasionally perform live). While A New Decade can’t but remain in the shadow of Club Classics Vol.1, it seems comfortable doing its own thing instead of chasing its own tail looking for replica hits, and a revisit shows that ‘Second Album Syndrome’ was never really a problem. Soul II Soul honed their sound years before they even entered a studio and weren’t about to let industry pressure break their stride. Their success brought sound system culture to the mainstream and lit the pathway for drum & bass, garage and all that has followed since, a legacy that should be remembered and celebrated 30 years on.