"The Best of En Vogue" (EastWest/Elektra), which chronicles one of the most popular pop and R&B girl groups of the '90s, also makes a solid case for those groups' import and impact. In 1990, the act blasted onto the scene with "Hold On," an early and hyper-slick version of what would later be called hip-hop-soul. The group's youthful vocals were sassy and soaring and a marked contrast to such '80s girl groups as Vanity 6 and Klymaxx, who could barely sing, much less harmonize.
For its second album, "Funky Divas," En Vogue created an electrifying hybrid of black Andrews Sisters harmonies, the saucy independence and pop-rock attitude of Janet Jackson and the high-fashion sensibility of Jody Watley. The album, which sold more than 3 million copies, included such radio staples as "My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It)" and a cover of Aretha Franklin's "Giving Him Something He Can Feel," both of which are included in the hits package.
Unfortunately, success stoked the group's internal strife. And by its third album, "EV3," En Vogue had lost its most charismatic member, Dawn Robinson, and much of the public's interest.
It's disappointing but strangely apt that "The Best Of" album reflects the group's internal tension. "Don't Let Go (Love)," from the "Set It Off" soundtrack, featured a searing lead by Robinson and was one of the group's biggest hits. But on the "Best Of" version of the song, Robinson's vocals have been replaced by a nearly note-by-note mimic from remaining member Terry Ellis that lacks the brazen hunger that made Robinson's performance so mesmerizing.
"The Best Of" also includes four additional songs recorded by the group's downsized incarnation, none of which was a substantial hit. Yet it's missing "You Don't Have to Worry" and "Don't Go," two Top 5 R&B hits that the group recorded as a foursome.
Nonetheless, "The Best Of" remains a largely pleasing collection of the trademark thick grooves and lush harmonies that for a time made En Vogue the definitive R&B girl group of the '90s. Such major hits as "Lies" and "Whatta Man" (with Salt-N-Pepa) have aged well, and such former sleepers as "Give It Up, Turn It Loose" and "Runaway Love" have gotten better with time.
The companion video compilation further illustrates the reason for the group's enormous success. In look and sound, En Vogue presented a sexy and stylish R&B girl group ideal. Note how even Disney appropriated the look for the animated funky muses in "Hercules."
While Robinson's departure mortally wounded the group, it's questionable whether even the original incarnation would have been able to thrive in the late-'90s hip-hop/R&B climate, which demands that artists "keep it real." What made En Vogue so great is that with its show-off harmonies and off-the-runway style, the group probably wouldn't have even known what "real" meant.
To hear a Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8161.
After their debut single, "No, No, No (Part II)," became a smash hit in '97, Texas natives Destiny's Child were a one-hit wonder in waiting. The group's first album failed to produce any more hits despite high-profile cameos by Jermaine Dupri and Master P. And their corny ads for sensitive-scalp hair relaxer only intensified their potential as future joke fodder. Many people would have bet against Destiny's Child's ever having another hit or making a great album. But with the release of the group's sophomore effort, "The Writing's on the Wall" (Sony), these naysayers would be broke.
Not only does it contain the hilarious "Bills, Bills, Bills," which just went Top 5 on both the pop and R&B charts, but the album is also one of the most entertaining and cohesive of the year. Sexy, sassy, Southern and smart, "The Writing's on the Wall" races open with "So Good," a lyrical indictment of all those who doubted the group: "Wasn't it you that said/ that I wouldn't do too good/ and never make it out the hood/ I want you to know that I'm doing so good." Lead singer Beyonce Knowles sings this and several other songs at a thrilling daredevil speed that is a gloved fit for the album's many up-tempo Southern-bounce grooves.
Thematically, the album is so engaging because the individual songs affect a wide array of perspectives, some of which are realistically contradictory and even hypocritical. Though the young women scoff at men who cheat ("Hey Ladies"), pester them ("Bugaboo") and can't help with the expenses ("Bills, Bills, Bills"), they also lavishly indulge in transgressions of their own. "Temptation" finds Knowles at a club about to write a guy's phone number on the palm of her hand when she thinks: "Oops, I forgot/ I got a man." Similarly, "If You Leave" is a tender ode to infidelity on which Knowles croons, "If you leave her/ I'll leave him." And in the throbbing "Confessing," written and produced by Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, Knowles comes clean with her boyfriend about cheating on him.
These songs provide a twist to the hip-hop/R&B gender battles in which all men are philandering "scrubs" and all women are gold-digging "pigeons." "The Writing's on the Wall" deals less with polarizing labels than with desire, temptation and circumstance. So, while Destiny's Child may have had a smash hit with "No, No, No," with "The Writing's on the Wall" it gets a refreshingly complex point of view.
To hear a Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8162.
There's something enduring about 702. The group debuted in '94 on the male quartet Subway's Top 5 R&B hit "This Little Game We Play." But while Subway was never heard from again, 702 returned two years later with the hit "Steelo," which sampled "Voices Inside My Head" by the Police and featured an early rap cameo by Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, who writes and produces the group's new rowdy girl-fight anthem, "Where My Girls At." And while "Where My Girls At" is one of the summer's biggest hits, the group's sophomore album, "702" (Motown), shows that the trio has the talent to last many seasons.
Much of the album consists of surprisingly mature yet energetic mid-tempo grooves. And overall, it has an introspective spiritual quality reflected even in the moody cover art. In "Finally," 702 sings about accepting that "anything is possible" and that "there are things beyond their control." The bouncy "What More Can He Do" deals with the women's relationship with God. And in "You Just Never Know," they convey the oft-told advice about putting things off until tomorrow because, well, you just never know.
All of these songs find the group traveling well-trodden, indeed cliched, trails, but their sweet, earnest crooning makes the numbers sound not hackneyed but heartfelt and sometimes slightly haunting. The group's 21-year-old gospel-trained leader, Kameelah Williams, commands each track like a seasoned pro, demanding the listener's attention from her first note. And the chemistry she generates with sisters Irish and Lemisha Grinstead makes 702 an R&B girl group to watch.
To hear a Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8163.
To set itself apart from the girl-group pack, Blaque touts itself as edgy and experimental (the name is an acronym for the unbearably awkward phrase "Believing in Life and Achieving a Quest for Unity in Everything"). And the group's eponymous debut (Sony) features such experiments as "I Do," a song that starts as a syrupy mid-tempo R&B number and then explodes with a classic finger-snapping Motown chorus.
Their quirky R. Kelly-produced single "808," named after the drum machine that provided the rhythms for many early hip-hop records, is a brilliant example of pop minimalism for the way its sparsely arranged beats suggest an alternative rhythm that is much faster than the song's actual tempo.
But aside from these fresh takes, Blaque fails to deliver on its cutting-edge promises and instead serves up an album that is dully status quo. There's a routine ballad written by Mariah Carey ("Don't Go Looking for Love"), yet another cover of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" and a duet with 'N Sync, in which the milquetoast heartthrobs sing the unintentionally humorous lines: "Do you like my Tims/ my baggy jeans/ my thug appeal." Like the bubble wrap the act sports on the cover, Blaque is intriguing on the surface, but ultimately just designed to pop.
To hear a Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8164.
CAPTION: Cindy Herron, from left, Maxine Jones and Terry Ellis, providing En Vogue's new album with the group's trademark thick grooves and lush harmonies.