In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
I’ve never totally understood why R&B dominated the pop charts as thoroughly as it did for much of the ’90s. I didn’t really get it when it was happening, and I don’t really get it now. But I have theories. Part of it, I think, was the advent of the SoundScan era — the new technology that showed what people were actually buying, rather than just what record-store owners claimed that people were buying. Part of it was that rap was ascendant but hadn’t quite taken over yet. While rap made radio programmers nervous, this rap-adjacent wave of R&B let those programmers dip their toes in those sounds.
Mostly, though, I think it’s the fact that this wave of R&B was its own kind of new. Mariah Carey had broken through with this extravagantly virtuosic vocal style, bringing all these gospel-style vocal bends and twirls to straight-up pop music. (Whitney Houston had done some of that before Mariah, too, but I consider “Vision Of Love” to be the big-bang moment for what followed.) Quickly, other singers rose up and went crazy on that theatrical style. These young singers were in the pop-music sweet spot between the new and the familiar — traditional song structures and romantic lyrics combined with updated singing styles and updated production. In the years before rap cemented itself as the most popular genre of music on the planet, that combination was powerful enough to dominate the charts.
In that post-“Vision Of Love” moment, a whole new generation of vocal groups rose up. The biggest of them was Boyz II Men, the Philly group who sang in elaborately layered harmonies and who had no real lead singer. Other male vocal groups proliferated: Silk, Shai, H-Town, Jodeci, Public Announcement. At the same time, the old institution of the girl group had its own renaissance. The biggest of those girl groups had their own defined personas. En Vogue, from Oakland, were regal and glamorous. TLC, from Atlanta, were colorful and cartoonish. Both groups went on to have huge runs. (TLC will appear in this column a bunch of times. En Vogue, sadly, never quite got to #1, though they made it up to #2 three different times, enough to make them the ’90s answer to perpetual runners-up Creedence Clearwater Revival.) In the summer of 1993, though, a more unassuming girl group beat both En Vogue and TLC to #1.
The three members of SWV all came from New York. Like so many of their peers, those three singers came up singing gospel. SWV never had a gimmick. Their name stood for “Sisters With Voices,” and that was also their sales pitch. They were all ferociously gifted singers, but they were also approachable young around-the-way everywomen, known primarily by their nicknames. When SWV were at their best, you could tell that they were all real-life friends, though their friendships eventually frayed in the old, expected show-business ways. For a couple of weeks, those three young women had the most popular song in America. I like SWV’s one #1 hit just fine, but not as much as I like that kind of fairytale story.
Cheryl “Coko” Gamble, SWV’s lead singer, grew up between Brooklyn and the Bronx. As the daughter of a session singer, Coko started singing in churches when she was barely old enough to stand. (When Coko was born, the #1 song in America was the Beatles’ “The Long And Winding Road.”) The other two members of SWV, Brooklyn’s Tamara “Taj” Johnson and the Bronx’s Leann “Lelee” Lyons, had more chaotic home lives. Taj lost both parents when she was young, and she ended up in multiple abusive situations. Lelee left home at 15 and had two kids of her own by 17.
Before Lelee dropped out of high school, she and Coko sang gospel together. Eventually, they brought Taj into the fold and started singing R&B. Like so many other singers of their era, these three young women were inspired by New Edition; at first, they called themselves Female Edition. They found a manager, a young woman named Maureen Singleton who worked an entry-level office job and shopped SWV’s demo to record labels in her spare time. Singleton had the idea to send the group’s demo to labels with birthday cards, thinking this might get them a little more attention and convince a few people to listen to the tape. That’s a goofy idea, but it worked. RCA A&R guy Kenny Ortiz liked the demo enough to bring SWV in to sing live in the office, and he liked their performance enough to sign the group.
For SWV’s debut album, Ortiz paired the trio up with Brian Alexander Morgan, a young producer and songwriter from Wichita. In the late ’80s, Morgan was half of a duo called Cachet De Vois. Jay King, leader of former Number Ones artists Club Nouveau, discovered Cachet De Vois, moved the group out to his Sacramento hometown, and got them signed to Warner Bros. Cachet De Vois’ one album, 1988’s Personal, went nowhere, and the duo lost their record deal and broke up.
Morgan was crushed over his group’s failure, but he stayed in Sacramento and kept writing songs, hoping to score himself a solo deal. Around that time, he developed a terrible crush on another Jay King protege, the R&B singer Chanté Moore. In that, Brian Alexander Morgan was not alone. Chanté Moore later became an R&B star, and a whole lot of people had it bad for her. (Chanté Moore’s highest-charting single, 1999’s “Chanté’s Got A Man,” peaked at #10. It’s a 7.)
Brian Alexander Morgan didn’t get anywhere with Chanté Moore, and his career stalled out for a couple of years. At some point, Morgan learned that Martha Wash, the great Bay Area disco howler whose lead vocals on C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” famously went uncredited, had a new solo deal with RCA. Morgan wrote some songs for Wash, and she loved them. One of those songs was the house anthem “Give It To You,” a 1993 single that topped the club chart and crossed over to the Hot 100, where it peaked at #90.
Martha Wash’s A&R guy at RCA was Kenny Ortiz, the one who’d signed SWV. Ortiz heard some of Morgan’s other demos, and he paired Morgan up with the group. Morgan wrote and produced most of SWV’s 1992 debut album It’s About Time. When Morgan first wrote “Weak,” his song about crushing out on Chanté Moore, he’d imagined it as a song for Charlie Wilson, the frontman for ’80s funk greats the Gap Band. (The Gap Band’s highest-charting single, 1982’s “Early In The Morning,” peaked at #24. Wilson went on to have a long-running solo career. As a lead artist, his highest-charting single is 2005’s “Charlie Last Name: Wilson,” which peaked at #67. As a guest, where he’s done his most visible work, Wilson’s biggest hit is Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful,” from 2003, which also features Justin Timberlake and Pharrell and which peaked at #6. It’s a 6.) Charlie Wilson never recorded “Weak,” but when the members of SWV heard the track at the very end of Morgan’s demo tape, they told him that he should’ve put that song first.
As a producer, Morgan was influenced by the funky, sample-heavy style of rap producers like EPMD’s Erick Sermon, but he was also rooted deep in ’80s R&B. Morgan wrote songs, but he also made beats, and SWV knew how to sing over those beats. SWV weren’t rap-influenced to the extent that, say, TLC were. Taj would sometimes rap, but she didn’t make it a focus, the way TLC’s Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes did. Still, rap was part of SWV’s approach. With Morgan, SWV found an of-the-moment sound. Their 1992 debut single “Right Here” was a decent-sized R&B hit, though it only made a minor dent in the Hot 100, peaking at #92.
“Right Here” gave SWV a foothold. Their next single made them stars. “I’m So Into You” is a charming, propulsive jam about an intense crush. Brian Alexander Morgan’s production owed something to new jack swing, but he slowed the tempo down a bit and gave SWV’s vocals a whole lot of room. They took advantage of that room, with Coko, in particular, flexing all over the place. “I’m So Into You” was a #2 hit on the R&B chart, and it got as high as #6 on the Hot 100. (It’s a 7.) SWV’s third single was the one that pushed them all the way to the top.
There’s a nice continuity between “I’m So Into You” and “Weak.” “Weak” is a ballad, but it’s about all the same things. For “Weak,” Morgan slows the tempo way down. The track is built entirely on drum machines, and those drum machines do minimal things — echoing finger-snaps, slight woodblock tinks, an unfussy loping groove that kicks in on the chorus. The instrumentation is pretty spare, too; it’s mostly just Morgan noodling away on a cheap, queasy keyboard. (That keyboard tone is terrible, and it’s probably my biggest obstacle to getting into “Weak.”) The whole time, the focus is squarely on the voices of the three women singing. At the end of the album, there’s also an a cappella version that lets you hear those voices even more clearly. I think I prefer that version.
“Weak” is one of those songs where gender doesn’t matter. Charlie Wilson could’ve done great things with “Weak,” but as a girl-group song, it loses nothing. The sentiment is universal: You find yourself falling to pieces every time you’re around this other person, and that feeling is both elating and terrifying. It strips you of any power. Morgan’s lyrics are elegantly simple evocative, the way pop-song lyrics should be: “My heart starts beating triple time/ With thoughts of loving you on my mind/ I can’t figure out just what to do/ When the problem here is you.” I love how the song presents the crush-object as a “problem.” It neatly captures a complicated sentiment: You want to be around this person all the time, but you also sort of want to stop feeling this way, to get your autonomy back.
“Weak” is a relatively lightweight song. Coko’s lead vocal isn’t a passionate apocalypse. Instead, even when she’s showing off what her voice can do, she sings everything with a matter-of-fact shrug. Taj and Lelee’s harmonies circle around Coko, working as gentle backup. The song might tell of big emotions, but it comes off a bit low-stakes; you never get the feeling that Coko will be stuck on this person for the rest of her life. That offhand grace makes “Weak” feel pleasantly undemanding. A summer-crush song does not, after all, have to be an everlasting-love song.
“Weak” is all about vulnerability, so it’s kind of funny that SWV portrayed themselves as being super-tough in the video. In the clip, they’re all styled to look a whole lot like Mary J. Blige, who’d just effectively established herself as the queen of hip-hop soul. (MJB will eventually appear in this column.) SWV don’t look quite so convincing in all that leather and camo, and there’s an incomprehensible storyline about Coko as an underground boxing promoter. But it’s kind of fun to see a music video where lingering glances matter more than punches, even during a boxing match.
“Weak” would prove to be SWV’s biggest hit and their crowning achievement, but they had more hits left in them. Later in 1993, SWV released a new version of their debut single “Right Here,” a remix that combined their vocals with the instrumental from Michael Jackson’s 1982 hit “Human Nature.” (“Human Nature” peaked at #7. It’s an 8.) That “Right Here” remix also featured the voice of a very young Pharrell Williams, a guy who will eventually appear in this column, chanting SWV’s name in the background. The remix, titled “Right Here/Human Nature,” got as high as #2, technically making it a bigger hit than the original “Human Nature.” (“Right Here/Human Nature” is a 7.)
Thanks to those three big top-10 hits, SWV’s debut album It’s About Time went triple platinum. A year later, the group got to #18 with “Anything,” their contribution to the Above The Rim soundtrack. In 1995, Coko had a baby named Jazz with the Digable Planets’ Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler. (The Digable Planets’ highest-charting single, 1992’s “Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” peaked at #15.) These days, Jazz Butler is known as Lil Tracy; he found cult-level fame by making zonked-out emo-rap alongside the late Lil Peep.
SWV came back with their sophomore album New Beginning in 1996, and their easy-loping lead single “You’re The One” was a big hit, peaking at #5. (It’s a 7.) That was SWV’s last time in the top 10. “Use Your Heart,” the album’s second single was the first song ever produced by the Neptunes, the duo of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. (It peaked at #22.) The Neptunes would go on to become some of the biggest, most important producers in rap history, but you can’t hear much of their gloriously weird sound in “Use Your Heart.”
New Beginning went platinum, but SWV’s 1997 follow-up Release Some Tension was a commercial disappointment, stalling out at gold. Its biggest single was “Someone,” which couldn’t chart higher than #19 despite the presence of co-producer and guest rapper Puff Daddy, the man who absolutely owned the Hot 100 that year. (Puff Daddy will eventually appear in this column.) The friendship at the heart of SWV was coming apart by this point, with Taj and Lelee getting pissed off at Coko getting all the attention. After they released a Christmas album at the end of 1997, SWV broke up.
Before SWV’s breakup, Coko sang on Will Smith’s 1997 movie theme “Men In Black.” This was one of the year’s most omnipresent songs, but it was never released as a single, so it never made the Hot 100. (Will Smith will eventually appear in this column.) Coko’s solo career didn’t turn out to be quite so big. Her 1999 debut Hot Coko bricked, and its lead single “Sunshine” peaked at #70. Pretty soon, RCA dropped Coko.
Taj spent a couple of years as a model, and she married Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George. They’re still together, and she’s now Tamara “Taj” Johnson-George. The couple starred in a reality show called I Married A Baller in 2007. Two years later, Taj was on a season of Survivor, where she came in fourth place. Lelee got her GED and found a job at an accounting firm.
In 2005, SWV got back together. They’ve done a lot of touring, released a couple of independent albums, and starred in a couple of reality shows about repairing their friendship. Last year, they took on fellow ’90s girl group Xscape in a Verzuz battle. (Xscape’s highest-charting single, 1993’s “Just Kickin’ It,” peaked at #2. It’s a 5.) SWV arrived at the exact right moment, and they had a huge debut year. After that, they weathered some tumultuous times. They made it through, and they’re once again intact. There’s nothing weak about them.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Cappadonna informing you that you weak in the knees like SWV on Ghostface Killah’s 1996 track “Winter Warz”:
(Ghostface Killah’s highest-charting single, the 2006 Ne-Yo collab “Back Like That,” peaked at #61. Cappadonna doesn’t have any Hot 100 hits as lead artist, but he did guest on RZA’s excellently titled 1996 single “Wu-Wear: The Garment Renaissance,” which peaked at #60.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Weak” cover that JoJo — teen-pop JoJo, not Jodeci JoJo — released in 2004:
(JoJo’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “Too Little Too Late,” peaked at #3. It’s an 8.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lil Wayne rapping over a “Weak” sample on a 2018 track that’s also called “Weak”:
(Lil Wayne will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the honestly-pretty-great gospel version of “Weak” that Kanye West’s Sunday Service Choir released in 2019:
(Kanye West will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the extremely engaging Alabama rapper Flo Milli going in over a “Weak” sample on her own 2020 single “Weak”: