K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life”

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.

For much of the ’90s, Jodeci were the stuff of parental nightmares. That wasn’t because the North Carolina R&B quartet’s music was particularly noisy and rambunctious; it was not. This was a group that scored its biggest hit by covering Stevie Wonder on MTV Unplugged. The members of Jodeci were all gospel-trained vocal powerhouses, and they made the kind of music that plenty of ’90s parents might have enjoyed, if only it weren’t so horny. But it was so horny. Jodeci’s music was horny in the sort of way that leaves an imprint on an entire generation.

Put it this way: I had multiple friends who lost their virginity to Jodeci’s music, or who at least bragged about having lost their virginity to Jodeci’s music. This was the function that Jodeci served. ’90s R&B was all about grand and theatrical harmonies, and the most popular exemplars of that style used those harmonies in relatively chaste and huggable ways. Jodeci did not. Jodeci were here to fuck and to facilitate other people’s fucking. A year after the group went on hiatus, though, one half of Jodeci finally reached #1 with a straight-up wedding ballad. Jodeci became R&B legends by getting freakier than their peers, but when the brothers Cedric and Joel Hailey finally went for full-on chest-thumping romanticism, they made the biggest hit of their lives.

Cedric “K-Ci” Hailey and his younger brother Joel “JoJo” Hailey grew up in the Charlotte suburb of Monroe, and they also grew up in the Pentecostal church. The Hailey family’s roots in Black music ran deep. Dave Hollister, the former Blackstreet member, was a cousin of the Hailey brothers; another cousin was Fantasia Barrino, a singer who will eventually appear in this column. Both of K-Ci and JoJo’s parents were gospel singers, and the brothers got started early.

As kids, both brothers sang in a family gospel act called Little Cedric And The Hailey Singers, which also included their father Clifford. The group formed after the Hailey family temporarily moved to Baltimore in the early ’80s, and they released their debut album Jesus Saves in 1983, when K-Ci, then known as Little Cedric, was 14 and when JoJo was 12. Within the gospel world, the Hailey Singers were a pretty big deal; Jesus Saves reached #4 on the Billboard gospel chart.

Like so many gospel prodigies before them, the Hailey brothers eventually moved towards secular music. While they were still singing gospel, the Haileys met another pair of brothers, Donald and Dalvin DeGrate, now known respectively as DeVanté Swing and Mr. Dalvin. The DeGrate brothers also came from the gospel world, but Donald had been trying to break into R&B for a while. At 16, he’d gone to Minneapolis and camped out in Paisley Park for days, trying to find anyone who would pass his demo along to Prince. He left disappointed, but that experience didn’t stop him from trying again.

Soon after the two sets of brothers came together to form Jodeci, all four of them went up to New York for the express purpose of getting signed to Uptown Records, the upstart label that was just starting to fuse rap with R&B. They looked up the Uptown office address in the phone book, and they stayed there until founder Andre Harrell agreed to listen to their demo, and then to listen to them sing live in front of him. Harrell was impressed enough to sign Jodeci, and then he passed them off to his young protege Sean “Puffy” Combs, still an Uptown intern at the time.

Puffy famously molded Jodeci’s image, getting them to sing about sex and to dress like rappers. Jodeci marketed themselves as the most dangerous group in R&B, sometimes to overstated degrees. At the 1992 Billboard Music Awards, for instance, the group accepted an award while wearing elaborately ridiculous sexy-tough-guy getups — camo, black leather, ski masks, rampant shirtlessness, a lit blunt. DeVanté Swing reportedly brought a machete and a hand grenade as accessories, though I didn’t notice either of those onstage. I have memories of host Phil Collins feigning terror after Jodeci’s acceptance speech. It was great theater.

Jodeci’s music wasn’t anywhere near as intense as their public image implied. When Jodeci first made the Hot 100, they did it with “Forever My Lady,” a tender love ballad that didn’t have anything to do with rap beyond the drum-machine bloops of its beat. “Forever My Lady” was the title track of Jodeci’s 1991 debut album, which went triple platinum. The group’s other two ’90s albums didn’t sell quite as well as that, but all three went platinum or better. In 1993, Jodeci appeared on an Uptown-themed MTV Unplugged special, and their cover of Stevie Wonder’s 1981 song “Lately,” recorded live with only K-Ci and JoJo on vocals, became the group’s biggest hit, peaking at #4 on the Hot 100. (It’s an 8.)

While “Lately” was Jodeci’s biggest hit, it was also a bit atypical for the group. It’s a tender old-school love song, performed with the sort of passionate theatricality that came straight from gospel. Most of the time, Jodeci were going for something else. Their most emblematic single might be “Freek’n You,” a #14 hit from 1995. That song also had the gospel theatricality going for it, but its concerns were the earthly kind.

After the release of their 1995 album The Show, The After Party, The Hotel, Jodeci went on hiatus. Mr. Dalvin tried his hand at a rap career. DeVanté Swing, who’d already made a name for himself as a producer, became a hugely important behind-the-scenes figure, discovering and mentoring greats like Missy Elliott, Timbaland, and Ginuwine. K-Ci and JoJo went off and started making music as a duo. In 1996, the duo sang the hook on 2Pac’s chart-topping single “How Do U Want It.” They also released their debut single, a pretty acoustic-guitars-and-strings ballad called “How Could You.” It came out on the soundtrack for Bulletproof, Ernest Dickerson’s Adam Sandler/Damon Wayans buddy picture, and it peaked at #53.

As a duo, K-Ci & JoJo released their debut album Love Always in 1997. They were happy to sing hooks on nasty rap songs like “How Do U Want It,” and they briefly flirted with the idea of leaving MCA, parent label of Uptown, to sign with Death Row Records. But when they got around to recording their album, K-Ci & JoJo were going for something different. At the time, K-Ci insisted that they wouldn’t even use the word “sex” in their music anymore. Love Always isn’t exactly a repudiation of what K-Ci and JoJo had done in Jodeci. DeVanté Swing co-wrote and co-produced one of the album’s tracks, so the duo still kept things in the Jodeci family. But they were definitely trying to make something a whole lot more wholesome than what they’d just been doing.

It shouldn’t have worked. Wholesome R&B didn’t exactly dominate the charts in 1997. That’s the year when once-dominant groups like Boyz II Men really slid off of the Billboard charts. For the first few months of its existence, Love Always made a solid connection, but it wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire. The album’s swaggering lead single “You Bring Me Up” peaked at #26. Its follow-up, the hammy ballad “Last Night’s Letter,” only made it to #46. When the duo released “All My Life,” another ballad, as the album’s third single, Love Always had already gone platinum, but it didn’t necessarily look like it would do much better than that.

“All My Life” became something else. The song is a big, gooey, romantic slow jam, and since I was still in high school when it came out, I can tell you that it soundtracked a lot of prom slow-dance moments in its day. But “All My Life” didn’t start out as a romantic song. Instead, the song started off as a melody in JoJo Hailey’s head. He didn’t have any lyrics for the song until his daughter came into the studio and said something adorable about loving her dad for the rest of her life. Those words touched JoJo, and they also fit his melody nicely.

JoJo took the song to his regular collaborator Rory Bennett. JoJo and Bennett wrote and produced the song together. K-Ci, who’d essentially served as Jodeci’s frontman, sang lead on the track, though JoJo got in plenty of explosive R&B runs of his own. This kind of song was starting to fall out of fashion by the time K-Ci & JoJo released the single in early 1998, but “All My Life” didn’t really sound anachronistic. There’s a lot of delicate stuff in the mix on “All My Life” — a swirl of strings, a plucked acoustic guitar, a tender piano melody. But there’s also a big drum machine that keeps the song from slowing down too much, and the two singers deliver many of their lyrics with a bouncy, stuttering cadence that vaguely recalls Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. “All My Life” definitely scanned as an old-fashioned ballad, but it had a few subtle touches that helped it work in a time when R&B was boldly rocketing into the future.

The thing that everyone remembers about “All My Life” is the grand, drippy chorus, which K-Ci & JoJo attack with absolute brio, weaving together some nice harmonies whenever they’re not taking off on wild peacocking vocal runs. (They do a lot of that. They’ve never been shy about showing off their voices.) The song’s production is both slick and smart, full of well-deployed ear candy. The two singers are both out of their minds on the track, and their big solos don’t really do much for me. But I love the little guitar murmurs, the flighty string arrangement, and the levels of echo on that drum machine.

The “All My Life” piano line may or may be ripped off from “Hold Me ‘Til The Morning Comes,” a single that former Number Ones artist Paul Anka released in 1983. (“Hold Me ‘Til The Morning Comes” peaked at #40.) But even if they took that melody, K-Ci & JoJo had a better idea of what to do with it than Paul Anka ever did.

“All My Life” does a lot of little things right. It’s also a big, sodden cliché. On paper, the “All My Life” chorus reads as rote love-song drivel. The lyrics are all empty calories about never meeting another lover sweeter than you or more precious than you. At one point, they “promise to never fall in love with a stranger,” which seems like a pretty low bar to clear. I like a lot of things about “All My Life,” but those lyrics have never moved me. The song also has another big problem: K-Ci himself.

In real life, K-Ci was not the grand romantic that he portrayed on “All My Life.” For years, K-Ci dated his Uptown labelmate Mary J. Blige, a figure who will eventually appear in this column. They broke up around the time that Love Always came out, and Blige later claimed that the relationship had been “hellish.” She’s talked about abuse and said that she’d been “almost murdered” at one point. After the breakup, K-Ci became the target of a whole lot of Mary J. Blige songs.

So “All My Life,” as sung by K-Ci, is pure idealized fiction. Most love songs are idealized fiction, and plenty of them come from nightmare people. When “All My Life” was first out, I knew nothing about K-Ci being a shitty and abusive boyfriend to Mary J. Blige. But those details came out soon enough, and for me, they cast a shadow over the song. K-Ci didn’t have anything to do with writing “All My Life,” and it’s possible to enjoy the song without letting that stuff distract you. But I get this little tug at the back of my head whenever I’m listening to someone who I know has done something shitty. Very few of the figures that have appeared in this column are saints or heroes, but that kind of specific knowledge always colors my perception of a song like this. It bums me out in some existential way, and that feeling keeps me from locking all the way in.

If there’d been more publicity surrounding K-Ci and Mary J. Blige’s breakup at the time, maybe “All My Life” wouldn’t have done what it did. But ’90s listeners were already plenty used to tuning out fucked-up shit, so maybe the song still would’ve crushed. In any case, “All My Life” became a radio fixture before K-Ci & JoJo officially released the single. For the song’s video, director Lara M. Schwartz filmed K-Ci & JoJo in spotless tuxedoes, with bright-white gloves and scarves, singing in an ornate concert hall where even the audience members are dressed impeccably. We also get clips of people treating each other lovingly — couples but also friends, parents and kids, a stranger giving a sandwich to a panhandler. The song’s lyrics might be romantic, but the video implies that it’s a song about love in all its forms.

On the strength of “All My Life,” K-Ci & JoJo’s Love Always album went triple platinum. K-Ci & JoJo followed that album with their 1999 sophomore LP It’s Real. With that album, the duo took “Tell Me It’s Real,” another big ballad, to #2. (It’s a 4.) That album went platinum, and so did X, the album that the duo released in 2000. The big single from X was “Crazy,” which also appeared on the soundtrack of the pretty-great teen romance Save The Last Dance and which peaked at #11. That same year, K-Ci was charged with indecent exposure for the the alleged crime of whipping out his junk while performing at a radio station’s Christmas concert at LA’s Shrine Auditorium. If you’re going to do that, then it sort of misses the point of not singing about sex on record.

K-Ci & JoJo have recorded a few more albums since X, but “Crazy” was their last Hot 100 hit. The duo also starred in K-Ci & JoJo Come Clean, a reality show that was partly about their struggles with alcoholism. Jodeci eventually reunited to do a bit oldies medley at the 2014 Soul Train Awards and to release the album The Past, The Present, The Future a year later. These days, Jodeci stand as living symbols for young horniness in the ’90s, and K-Ci and JoJo’s career outside the group is a bit of a footnote, even if “All My Life” was a bigger hit than anything that Jodeci ever made. I can’t imagine that we’ll see K-Ci & JoJo in this column again.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Nelly’s 2007 single “Wadsyaname,” which is built on a slightly sped-up sample of the “All My Life” piano line:

(“Wadsyaname” peaked at #43. Nelly will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Future’s video for his 2016 track “Buy Love,” which uses a tinkly music-box version of the “All My Life” piano line:

(Future will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: There’s a great scene in the 2017 movie Ingrid Goes West in which Aubrey Plaza and Brie Larson both sing along with “All My Life” in a car. In that moment, the song visibly means different things to the two of them. That scene isn’t on YouTube, and the best I can do is the video below, which intercuts between that scene and a thing where Chadwick Bosemen, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, and their Black Panther director Ryan Coogler sing “All My Life” together on some talk show:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Craig David and MNEK’s video for their 2021 duet “Who You Are,” which interpolates the “All My Life” piano and builds a sleek UK garage track out of that melody:

(Craig David’s highest-charting Hot 100 hit, the 2000 single “7 Days,” peaked at #10. It’s a 7. MNEK’s highest-charting single, the 2016 Zara Larsson collab “Never Forget You,” peaked at #13.)

THE NUMBER TWOS: Madonna’s beautifully Björk-biting future-funk goth-club lullaby “Frozen” peaked at #2 behind “All My Life.” It holds the key, and it’s a 10.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.

Source link