When I think of the 90s, there are a few specific groups, songs and television shows that immediately come to mind: Martin, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Jodeci, SWV, Wu-Tang Clan, Jade’s “Don’t Walk Away,” Groove Theory’s “Tell Me,” (for my money, one of the best and most 90s songs of all time) and indisputably Zhané’s “Hey Mr. DJ.”
Zhané, the group with possibly the blackest group name origin story of all time—we’ll get to that in a second—comprised of Jean Norris-Baylor and Renee Neufville, hit the scene with 1993's “Hey Mr. DJ,” produced by Naughty By Nature’s KayGee, which is about as 90s a thing as you could do. Not for nothing, Naughty By Nature (not just KayGee, but including KayGee if that makes sense) is credited with producing 6 of the albums 13 tracks.
I remember liking this album when it came out, and though I was 14 when “Hey Mr. DJ” hit, it was an instant crowd favorite. And though I wasn’t actually up in the club where I could go actively seek out the party that was over here, much less the party that was over there, by the time I got to college, the song’s resonance hadn’t slowed down and it was very much apart of my college experience. But something I didn’t really give much thought to until more recently (and by recently I mean like over a decade ago) was just how fire the album that “Hey Mr. DJ” helped sell, Pronounced Jah-Nay. Good googly moogly does this album have the dope jams on it.
Now this is as good a place as any to talk about how they came up with their name and the title of the the album. So, the two women who comprise the group are named Jean and Renee. In attempting to come up with a group name for their recording contract, Renee brilliantly was like, yo, let’s put the names together French-ly so you get Jean-nee, a portmanteau. But after putting the names together, Renee was like, “yo, this is the 90s, we must put some stank on it,” so she spelled it with a Z to make it funky for the autographs. Hence Zhane, which could easily be mispronounced as “jhane.” But then they were like, FRANCE! ACCENTS ARE US, HO! And they threw the accent aigu on the end to make it Zhané, which both looks like a foreign name and NOT like the combo of their two names. Which is dope. For real, Zhané is a dope name.
Except niggas struggle pronouncing shit like Aaron. So because nobody, and I do mean nobody, knew how to pronounce the group name, and especially not the white people who were putting their names on contracts, they had to explain to everybody how to say their actual name. They devoted a whole ass skit on the album to it, hence the album title Pronounced Jah-Nay, which begs the question, why not just name theirselves Jah-Nay? But blackness reigns supreme over nearly everybody, so the simple answer is never the choice. I love us, as they say.
Back to the lecture at hand: Pronounced Jah-Nay is a 13-track album with 5 straight banger singles: “Hey Mr. DJ,” “Vibe,” “Sending My Love,” “Groove Thang” and “It’s Over Now.” It’s all smooth 90s flavor, hip-hop jazz stylings. I particularly enjoy “Groove Thang,” which is a perfect roller skating jam and “Vibe,” is, well, a vibe. The one thing Zhané had going for them above many other groups was their perfect harmony. The two women were aces when it came to blending their voices to create a new solid singular voice that covered many chords.
But the songs that truly moved me are two non-singles, “Love Me Today,” and “For A Reason.” Both songs are piano driven singles written and composed by each woman individually, Renee and Jean, respectively. “For A Reason” is great lyrically, but where it shines is Jean and Renee softly sitting on top of the piano riffs and then taking you to church. When Jean, I presume, gets to the crescendo of the song where they sing over and over “everything happens for a reason, they say,” it’s church...every time. Every. Single. Time. And then they take it to like church church where they show you just how good their vocal chops are, and I promise you one time when I was in the car driving to work, I had to pull over because the last time they sang that and Jean went up and choked that note and held it, I teared up. I had to sit there and gather myself. I’m not ashamed to admit this. It got me.
And fam...fam. The last minute of the song “Love Me Today” is a minute of music I could literally listen to for the rest of my life on repeat and be just fine. I want to marry it and hug it and hold it tight and take it on dates to the finest Scottish restaurant out there, McDonald’s, then go for long walks through gentrified neighborhoods and pick daffodils because even though roses grow in the concrete, that must only happen in LA. Like for real for real, have you listened to how pretty that song is? It’s probably been a while since you’ve listened to it, but do yourself a favor and pull it up and rock “Love Me Today” until the very end and then run that “For A Reason.” They’ll take you to two different churches.
So yeah, Pronounced Jah-Nay, is an album that I love that takes me to the 90s in the best way possible. (If) It’s Friday, and if you need something to lift your spirit and to make you feel carefree and breezy and to take you back to a time when somebody else paid all the bills, this is a solid album to roll with.
Relax your mind, listen to the rhythm. It’s a groove thang.
Just make sure you pronounce their name right. It’s pronounced Jah-Nay.