Image via Uptown Records and MCA Records; illustration by Angelica Alzona/GMG

This week at VSB, we’re running a series called Albums That Changed My Life in which different writers let you in on the music that helped shape and mold them into the people they are today. We’re kicking things off with Lawrence Ware, for whom Jodeci’s Forever My Lady album changed the game.

Let my mother tell it, my cousins turned me into a heathen.

Every summer I went to Idabel, Okla., to spend the summer at my grandmother’s house and give my mom a break from motherhood. I am an only child of a deeply religious woman, so those times with my older relatives gave me an opportunity to spend time with people my age and catch up on the latest trends. Those summers are how I learned to match my do-rag with my FUBU jersey and the proper way to wear fat laces in my Air Force Ones. One thing I resisted was their attempts to introduce me to hip-hop and R&B. I’d been taught that music was reserved for worship of God. Anything “secular” made me feel dirty, apostatic.

Jodeci changed all of that.

Their debut studio album, Forever My Lady, was released in August of 1991, but I didn’t discover them until June of 1992, when my cousin Dionte brought a tape “down home”—the name we affectionately called my grandmother’s house at the time. My mom was on her way to pick me up that day, so he gave me the tape and said, “You’ll like this. Listen to it when you get home.” Intrigued, I sneaked the tape back by hiding it in the pocket of the Trapper Keeper I carried in my book bag.

For good measure, Dionte had copied the album onto an old Commissioned tape by putting small pieces of balled-up paper in the top of the cassette, thereby allowing me to get a copy of the album without raising the suspicions of my mother. We would do this many times thereafter. I later got copies of Biggie’s Ready to Die and Snoop’s Doggystyle using similar Trapper Keeper-cassette shenanigans. Once home, I sneaked into my room and listened to the album on my yellow Walkman Sport. To put it mildly, the tape didn’t disappoint.

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I was passingly familiar with Boyz II Men, and that group served as an easy point of comparison for Jodeci. Their Cooleyhighharmony debuted in February of 1991, and somehow, my mother allowed me to listen to the album. It may have been Boyz II Men’s old-school sonic musings. They were a throwback to a time in R&B where all you needed was four dudes who could sing and a mic.

Boyz II Men played with a new-jack sound in songs like “Motownphilly” and the later “Thank You,” but that sonic profile was not their musical identity. Songs like “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” from 1991 and “End of the Road” from 1992 solidified them as crooners in the tradition of the Temptations and the O’Jays. They were good, they were talented, but their music did not speak to me. It did not broaden my musical horizons. Put simply, Cooleyhighharmony did not change my life, not like the first album put out by four dudes from North Carolina who could SANG.

I now know that Jodeci were not the first to make soulful music grounded in an urban and gospel sound, but for a black kid sheltered from “worldy music,” Forever My Lady was revolutionary.

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The album doesn’t begin so much as float in seductively. A voice is heard over the track, and thereafter, four voices announce their presence with urgent vulnerability. “Stay,” they sing. To this day, I’m not sure if it was a command or a plea.

Jodeci was like nothing I’d ever heard before; yet, ironically, the group sounded exactly like everything I loved. They married the vocal stylings of gospel with subject matter that would make a first lady blush. They harmonized over new-jack beats and expressed emotion in a way that fit my still-developing understandings of black masculinity. They were everything I didn’t know I wanted in a group. They were a revelation.

Subversive and authentic, DeVante Swing, Mr. Dalvin, K-Ci and JoJo were examples of manhood a kid with no father could embrace. I loved everything about them. They were unapologetic in their rejection of authority, yet they expressed emotion in a way that I’d never seen black men do before. They begged without seeming needy. Made declarations without coming off brutish.

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The album was not perfect. I rarely listened past the first five tracks, but if the album had ended with “U&I,” it would go down as possibly the greatest EP of all time.

Hip-hop artists like Jay-Z and Big K.R.I.T. have mentioned the group in their lyrics and sampled their work in their songs. Drake’s soulfully vocalized flow is deeply indebted to Jodeci, while J. Cole’s melodically atmospheric approach to hip-hop channels the DeVante Swing approach to musical composition.

To the chagrin of many, contemporary R&B is more inspired by the likes of Jodeci than Boyz II Men. The days of simple balladry in R&B have given way to an at-times complex relationship with hip-hop. Jodeci foreshadowed the genre-bending we now see from artists like Future, Young Thug and Lil Yachty. For better or worse, they were part of the move away from the lush R&B of the ’80s to the edgy sound ubiquitous today.

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Jodeci remains my favorite R&B group, and Forever My Lady changed my life. Even if their most recent effort, 2015’s The Past, the Present, the Future, was decidedly underwhelming, their musical brilliance and unapologetic embodiment of urban black cool made way for many who came thereafter. Jodeci was more than just two sets of brothers from the South; they helped a young black boy from Oklahoma see that even secular music can be a gift from God.