Whatta group. Whatta moment in time. Whatta pioneering history. These 3 embody what a rap career is all about. Take notes aspiring duos, trios and female hip-hoppers abroad, this is how you leave a legacy.
It’s been argued that the point of Hip-Hop is to inspire, entertain, provide social commentary, educate, make others want to be like you, gain fame, more importantly fortune, and make your mark on music history by way of timeless work. If that is indeed the case, then consider Salt N Pepa‘s mission accomplished. They certified their status as a sociopolitical voice with the album before this one, delivering such singles as “Expression” and “Let’s Talk About Sex”. By doing so, they also crossed over to the world of pop, introducing them a broader audience and resonating with young women everywhere, leaving behind impactful classics.
The brains and beauty ethic worked well for the group. It’s dismaying that alot of their design came from the genius of a man behind the scenes. Herby Azor, former boyfriend of Cheryl “Salt” James and producer for other notable acts such as Kid N Play, had a vision for Salt N Pepa and shaped it and guided it as far as he could. As the main in-house producer and writer for the group, Azor intended to present the ladies as relatable NYC girls who could dish it out as good as the boys and look great while doing so. Their ascension and message was all planned out. Much like TLC, they were picked to be the voice of the new woman, from the mind of a man.
And this is where you can cry foul, because Hip-Hop prides itself on its authenticity and honesty. It makes you wonder, how much of a legend can you be when your whole career was orchestrated for you? Is the talent in the execution? If so, then there’s a Grammy that needs to go back to Milli Vanilli because at one long period in the music timeline their execution had us all fooled. Alot of female emcees who have reached iconic stature have gotten passes for not being the main people behind the pen. Is it a pacifying double standard? Or is it that all is forgiven once you’ve made classics?
Then again, that’s why we’re reviewing this particular album to begin with. Very Necessary was a milestone album in several ways, starting with the fact that it was the very first album that featured the members of the group handling the song-crafting on their own with little input from Azor. The relationship between he and the group was deteriorating and the words were finally coming from the mouth of now, all 3 ladies. With Dj Spinderella making herself a prominent presence on the mic and formally turning the tag team into a trio, the group was ready to blaze a new trail, and in the process, gave us their most successful album to date, and the most successful female rap album by a group ever.
Things start off excitedly and surprisingly with “Groove Me”, a dance hall inspired track that borrows from a popular 90’s riddim that was huge at the time and capitalizes off of the rap-reggae trend that was prominent then. What’s refreshing about it is that the group actually used a current proven hit to rap over as opposed to making some mock reggae attempt. This is one of two times that the group ventures into that territory, paying homage to Sandra “Pepa” Denton‘s West Indian roots, and allowing her to tap into that side of things and living up to the spice in her namesake. The other song being the sultry “Sexy Noises Turn me On”. Where Groove Me is playful and bouncy, this track finds the ladies describing their bedroom instructions, with a focus on the uhhmm…Aural pleasures of love-making. It’s a very direct and grown up approach to a sex song; Devoid of raunch or overt detail, and aimed in a way that addresses one lover to another, complete with an advisory “You know you gotta wear a condom right??!” quip at the end. The added dude on the track with the patois vocals is almost unnecessary here, but it doesn’t bring anything down. The spotlight is always on the women, and they have been Showstoppers from the gate.
In fact, the wackest moments on this album come from the various non-descript males that pop up on tracks adding vocals that could have been done without. It happens on songs like oh-so-famous “Shoop”, which started the 93-94 reign of Salt N Pepa as Mega Stars and featured some Pete-Rock look-alike spitting an 8 bar vamp at the end of the song that’s only memorable because the song itself is. The ladies made their point very clearly without him, and once again, while he doesn’t ruin the song, his presence makes Pep and Salt look like Eminem rapping with Gucci Mane. One track where the male vocals do stifle a bit is “No One Does It Better”, where the obvious early 90’s hip-hop ingredients are present; Rip-Off G-Funk vibes mixed with New Jack Swing takes on mid-tempo R&B. To overcompensate for the inevitable lack of soul that comes with that, the singer always is one of a more churchy variety more so than a pop-ready one. This leads to a style of singing that doesn’t really match the feel of the beat and lends itself way too much to ad-libbing and riffing. Straight from the outdated Aaron Hall school of extra! The saving grace here is that the ladies kill it with the verses and big themselves up on their skills of passion. Especially Salt and Spin, where you find the now reborn and super conservative Salt ironically rapping that she’s “better than the good book” and clever lines like when Spin starts with “Well that true, that’s why you never have no beef, cause when the bugle is blown, it’s all tongue and no teeth”. It’s this kind of slick innuendo at times that’s slipped in between the girls’ bluntness that made them so dope. They were free, but measured. Explicit, but discretionary. Even Pepa, known for having the most aggressive appeal on the mic, stayed in step and everyone kept with the uniformity of things. Spinderella in fact winds up delivering some of the more in-your-face lines. Pep’s force is mostly in her delivery. It’s difficult giving them all of this credit tho, as I’m not sure how much of this was Herby Azor’s doing and how much was theirs.
It’s also a little tricky for me to tell you the extent of my affinity for this group. As a kid, they reminded me of my two closest cousins from Brooklyn, Limi and Rainy – who are sisters…Down to their voices and hairstyles. Same age and everything. Yet somehow, I always had a slight crush on Salt and it made me wonder if that meant I had a crush on my cousin (Yikes!!). Being that I was so young tho, I stayed away from their music because I thought they were doing too much. Little did I know what their pioneering in the game as female emcees would bring down the line…
Salt started sounding distinctively more nimble-tongued and Pepa started sounding harder at some point down the line after the second album when the 2 didn’t rely so much on the tit-for-tat rhyme style made famous by Run-DMC. And while I’m sure that the underlying differences that was the inspiration for their group name were always present from the onset, this distinction made it more apparent to the audience. You could now see why one complimented the other. But I’d go as far as to say that Salt out-rapped her partner on most of this album. Even if Azor was still behind a decent amount of the penning here, Salt’s delivery was refined to a champ level for rappers of that era, effortlessly putting words together and riding the beat like they were birthed at the same time. She sounds cool and confident on every go and incorporated more wit than the other 2. Whether this was done purposefully by the ladies to play up on the characteristics of their names, or whether it’s a measure of skill between them, I’m not sure.
In either case, the ladies work in harmony to get their messages across. In some cases however, those messages are mixed. Not so much contradictory, but definitely overlapping. As one writer named Geoffrey Himes who reviewed this album stated,
“With their explicit rapping about bedroom gymnastics, Salt ‘N’ Pepa are unlikely to be held up as role models in classrooms or churches anytime soon. For a sexually active teenage girl, however, the trio shows how you can get your pleasure without putting up with any disrespect”.
Perhaps that is the case, and songs like “Somma Time Man”, where the group describes a situation where an unreliable guy divides his time between them and other women, highlights that very questionable judgement. But this is not new territory for the group that busted out on the scene with the hit, “I’ll Take Your Man”. It’s not a shocker. It’s actually kinda ill to see them staying true to what they came in doing. It goes further on “None Of Your Business”, the Grammy award-winning single that finds the women being extra feisty and fiery about keeping nosy finger-pointers and categorizers at bay. They charter into deeper subject matter on “Heaven and Hell” and the closing skit, “I’ve Got Aids”. The former sees the group tying a string of cautionary vignettes together, to provide a commentary on the changing times and growing statistics, with Pepa taking the lead and shining thru the brightest on this one. The latter speaks to just how serious the AIDS and HIV epidemic had become, and the group touted themselves as proud unofficial spokeswomen for awareness at the dawn of the movement ever since the last album where they remixed their hit “Let’s Talk about Sex” and retitled it as “Let’s Talk About Aids”. These 2 tracks alone pack in so much depth, that they make up for the lack thereof on the other 11.
One thing that cannot be said about the group on this album is that they are redundant. For an LP that consists of mostly fare concerning garnering respect from the opposite sex and relations with them, they ladies manage to compartmentalize and approach different elements of those relations. So from bedroom behavior, to respect, to infidelity to appreciation, they break things down instance by instance, with a song for each topic and an endless supply of rules, demands and disses for men who aren’t on top of things. There’s no doubt that the battle of the sexes is in full effect here, but it’s best taken care of when the women ease off of the relationship drama and focus on what got them known in the first place; Their skills as rappers crushing the competition and pushing haters aside. They do it well too. Besides the song “Step”, my 3 favorite songs on here are “Somebody’s Gettin’ On My Nerves”, “Big Shot” and “Break Of Dawn”. It’s here, that you are reminded that before they are women, They are rappers.
It’s easy to forget that in the shadow of all that Salt N Pepa has done for females. Their angle has always contained tangents of feminist idealism, tho not exactly full-out rebellion against the basic dynamics of man/woman relativity. Their position was not to try to outdo or dominate men, as it was to stake their claim as equals with comparable abilities. As the aunties to TLC, they stood on the same ground, pushing buttons by placing controversial topics towards the forefront and turning out success by doing so and making it entertaining. They also God Mothered the act of using their sexuality as a means of empowerment, while not going as far as their subsequent torch bearers Lil Kim and Foxy Brown – who killed the art of balance that the group had perfected. The ladies always used just enough of their physicality to make you acknowledge their beauty as confident Black women, and more than that, to see the strength of their power to wield that as chosen. Yet they always chose to have limitations for themselves. And that’s the bottom line with Salt N Pepa… Through all of the mixed messages, the ever-present and non-changing theme coursing through their body of work has always been CHOICE. They wouldn’t be caught dead being the down-ass hustler’s wife smuggling drugs in their orifices, or the chic bragging about how much she can fit in her mouth for a new luxury car and brand name bag, but they would defend those women’s right to be that if so chosen. We know how I feel about feminism in general, and while I may not agree with that stance, or while Salt herself probably cringes at their old lines like “If she, wanna be a freak an, sell it on the weekend (It’s none of your business!)” and wishes she could take some back, you can’t deny their impact.
I won’t close out this review without mentioning the MONSTER hit, “Whatta Man” ft. En Vogue. I don’t really need to say anything about it, just good to see that the women could take a break from their instructions to show love to the real men. And Whatta man am I for giving this album its recognition as a true Hip-Hop Classic?? Yes. I’m patting myself on the back right now.
I give this album 8 Candles out of a possible
4, 8, 12 or 16.
4(Classic Just because where it stands in Hip-Hop, whether it be the time of it’s release, it’s influence, or the popularity of it’s singles overall)
8(Classic because it was solid for it’s time, but may be a little dated or less than amazing by today’s standards)
12(Classic as a complete release and probably celebrated widely on the surface, but possibly lacking one key element – be it one song that doesn’t fit, a wack guest appearance, lyrics, lack of depth or beats)
16(Classic all around)
It’s becoming a trend with the last few reviews for me to give these interval ratings, but if I could, I would give this album 10 Candles. It’s pretty damn solid for what the group wanted to get across. Time frame considered.