Groove Theory: Groove Theory Album Review

A significant difference between Wilson’s beats and those of rap producers is a complete rejection of samples. Although the rhythmic elements of “Tell Me” sound suspiciously like the Mary Jane Girls’ 80s classic “All Night Long”, the song, like all of the other tracks on groove theory, mixes programmed rhythms and live instrumentation. Session musicians, especially producer Darryl Brown, whom Larrieux dubs the band’s third member in the liner notes, are heard throughout the album. Brown’s bass and guitar touches on “Come Home” offset Wilson’s thunderous drum lineup, underscoring the hope in Larrieux’s downbeat songwriting. “The streets will never love you like me / So leave this life behind and come home / Come home / Baby, come home,” she pleads.

Brown’s deft hands also guide “Ride” and “Hey U,” Groove Theory’s takes on G-funk. Larrieux’s modesty short-circuits the first. When she sings she wants to take a ride with a lover, it really means getting into a car and turning a key. There’s no adventure, escapism or innuendo in the statement, a far cry from Adina Howard’s unsubtly inviting “Do you want to ride?” or Dr. Dre rolling in the four with 16 switches. The slow-burning “Hey U” fares better, Larrieux’s aching melodies and breathless harmonies floating over Wilson and Brown’s rambling hydraulic beat. “All that’s left to say is hey you/Hey you,” she coos, turning the embarrassment of seeing an ex rejected in public into graceful resignation.

Although Groove theoryThe fusions of never feel quite as daring as the world-building that unfolds on other mid-90s syncretic R&B albums like Meshell Ndegeocello’s. Plantation lullabiesthat of Sade luxury loveD’Angelo’s brown sugarand that of Janet Jackson Janet., there is no friction of the whole mixture. Groove Theory imagined R&B as a flagship genre that could house jazz scats, funk grooves, and conflict-free rap. It’s no coincidence that the terms most often used to describe the band are ‘cool’ and ‘slick’.

This lack of tension turns out to be a feature as much as a bug. Larrieux sometimes seems so keen to avoid histrionics and melodrama that she underestimates her most impassioned writing. “10 Minute High” and “Boy at the Window” center on a drug-addicted teenage girl and a boy who idolizes an absent, womanizing father, but the characters are so tragic they don’t seem real. And the restrained voice of Larrieux drains the songs of urgency. She clearly had Sade songs like “Tar Baby” and “Maureen” in mind (and probably a few Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye tracks too), but she hadn’t yet learned to wield melancholy and darkness rather than just to mention them.

Groove Theory’s R&B arc did not take hold among listeners or their peers. “Tell Me” went gold, as did the album, but most modern mentions of the band are steeped in nostalgia, the music invoked as a portal to adolescence and young adulthood. “‘Tell me’ IMMEDIATELY takes you back to the 90s,” writer Panama Jackson wrote for The Root in 2018, a typical anthem. The band’s musical heritage is also limited. “Tell Me” was sampled by Sadat X, G-Unit and Wale, and Solange, Hikaru Utada and Kelela cited Larrieux as an influence, but Groove theory ended up being a marginal record in a decade where all strains of R&B reigned supreme. A faint line can be drawn from Groove theoryThe hushed sensuality and hard beats of Little Dragon, the xx, and R&B duos like Denitia and Sene and Lion Babe, but that would be imposed rather than drawn.

This small footprint is partly the product of the band’s breakup when Larrieux left behind creative differences and launched his idiosyncratic solo career. Wilson went on to record a second Groove Theory album with vocalist Makeda Davis which reimagined the band as suitable for radio, but this revamp – which was shelved and later leaked – only underscores the charms of the original training. This sequence of events and occasional reunion concerts prompted investigators to regularly question Larrieux and Wilson about the possibility of a real Groove theory suite, a question to which the two artists answered with enthusiasm. But it’s probably more fitting that an album designed to bypass radio and commerce lives on in memories, not moored to the music industry and canons, but attached to bodies that, on a distant journey, from a club night or a first kiss, have felt and still feel the groove.


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