Middleton did reach out to Riley, and the two quickly agreed that it was time for BLACKstreet to regroup. Before long, Riley, Middleton, Chauncey Hannibal and Eric Williams, the lineup that presided over BLACKstreet in 1997, during its incredible Another Level period, was back in the studio. The result is Level II (set for release Nov. 19, 2002, on DreamWorks Records).
" What's incredible is how easily it all came together," says Middleton. "We started listening to the songs Teddy had recorded for his solo project, and we were amazed by how much they sounded like BLACKstreet songs."
Confirms Hannibal: "We were all vibing on being back together, and songs like 'Bygones' and 'You Made Me' just felt like things we would do. Before we knew it, we were recording these tracks and making them ours." In keeping with this spirit of reunion, the quartet invited original BLACKstreet member Dave Hollister to provide guest vocals on "Bygones."
For the back story on this tale of voices rising once again in seamless harmony, one must travel a full decade back in time. In 1992, Teddy Riley was widely viewed as a defining force in contemporary R&B. He'd guided albums by of-the-moment sensations like SWV and enduring superstars like Michael Jackson (earning a Grammy Award for Best Engineered Album for Jackson's Dangerous that year.) He'd also been a founding member of Guy, which disbanded in 1991 after two platinum albums.
Having settled in Virginia Beach, where he'd opened Future Recording Studios, Riley was contemplating his next move. He longed once again to be part of a team. So, with singers Chauncey Hannibal, Levi Little and Dave Hollister, Riley formed BLACKstreet.
Brandishing an electrifying mix of soul, funk, hip-hop and gospel, BLACKstreet delivered their self-titled debut album in the summer of 1994. The disc was certified platinum, rose to #7 on Billboard's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and spawned three hit singles: "'Before I Let You Go" (Top 10 on Billboard's Hot 100), "Joy" (#8 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay list) and "Booti Call" (Top 20 Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay). These, combined with MTV and BET airplay and a thriving tour, established BLACKstreet as one of the most promising outfits on the R&B landscape.
Perhaps more importantly, though, their sound represented a new direction. Testified Spin: "Lest we forget, Teddy Riley's spring-heeled, pyrotechnic production extravaganzas had a seismic impact in a field then dominated by obsequious balladeers dressed like head waiters" (August 1994).
Still, as history would bear out, BLACKstreet was just getting started. Little and Hollister departed the group to embark on solo careers, but in 1996, with Mark Middleton and Eric Williams on board, BLACKstreet defied the sophomore slump with an album that soared.
Appropriately titled Another Level, the disc debuted at #1 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and at #3 on the Billboard 200 (it would reside on both charts for more than 60 weeks). This spectacular premiere was due in no small part to a Riley-produced monster called "No Diggity."
Deemed one of the 100 Greatest Pop Songs by Rolling Stone and MTV, "No Diggity" broke new ground with its amalgamation of gritty hip-hop beats and smooth-as-silk harmonies. The sweltering intensity of BLACKstreet's vocal performance, coupled with the track's pulsating rhythms and G-funk-infused sonics (including a cameo from Dr. Dre), propelled the song to #1 (Hot 100) and platinum certification. It seemed "No Diggity" was everywhere. Among other achievements, it topped the Hot R&B Singles Airplay chart for seven straight weeks and the Hot R&B Singles Sales chart for a month. Also helping it along was a steamy video directed by a newcomer named Hype Williams.
As Another Level climbed to sales of more than four million, BLACKstreet displayed a diversity only suggested by their debut. Where "No Diggity" was a bumpin', no-holds-barred sexual escapade, its follow-up, "Don't Leave Me," was a captivating ballad, a heartfelt missive about lost love that brought the group another #1. "Don't Leave Me" remained at #1 on the Billboard R&B Singles Airplay chart for three weeks, also hitting the Top 10 of the Hot 100.A slew of awards and award nominations recognized these triumphs. BLACKstreet earned the 1998 Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group, for "No Diggity" - a feat as yet unmatched by any other male R&B outfit. There were also nods for MTV Awards and American Music Awards and an MTV Europe Award for Best R&B Album.
Artists lined up to ask BLACKstreet to appear on their projects. In 1997 they graced Foxy Brown's hit single "Get Me Home"; the following year, they lent vocals to Jay-Z's "The City Is Mine."
In April of 1999, BLACKstreet issued their third album, Finally. By the time of its release, Terrell Phillips had replaced Middleton, who'd left to seek out solo opportunities. Finally was certified gold, but the quartet seemed to have lost some of its fire. The creative differences that had led to repeated lineup shuffling had begun to take their toll, and corporate restructuring at the group's record company further stymied any forward motion.
Hannibal, Williams and Phillips returned to their solo careers, and Riley threw himself back into production, developing several tracks for that solo album while helping artists like Profyle, Joe, Janet Jackson and *NSYNC earn hits.
"But," he confides, "I was not happy." Says Middleton: "This is what you have to understand about Teddy Riley: Music is like a sport for him. He loves to play ball, and he'd much rather be on a team then out there on his own." Thus a hopeful Riley began driving past Middleton's house.
Once the reassembled group was fully ensconced at Future Recording, they set out to recapture the magic that made BLACKstreet one of the preeminent pop ensembles of the 1990s. The members soon realized, much to their delight, that very little had changed since the good old days.
Riley ventures: "We've stayed true to who we are and that's why I think BLACKstreet is as relevant today as we've ever been. It's still about the music, not the image. It's still about the voices, the harmonies - always has been, always will be."
To be sure, many will hear echoes of Another Level in Level II. "Wizzy Wow," the first radio track off Level II, is brisk and bouncy, with a growling potency sure to shake many a rump. A tribute to the female form in the tradition of "No Diggity," it pushes the envelope with a verse from rapper Mystikal and an extraordinary turn from Middleton.
Riley sees Level II as something of a concept album about a romantic relationship. "Wizzy Wow" is that story's introduction. "It's about the woman in the club who makes you stop and just say, 'Wizzy WOW!,'" he illuminates. "With that woman, 'wow' is not enough - you gotta have that extra something to explain how hot she is."
Another of the album's highlights is the light and spare "Bygones." It addresses the disc's theme of reconciliation, reinforcing that message with the assistance of Hollister. Anchored by Riley's acoustic guitar and buoyed throughout by finger snaps, "Bygones" is an affecting ballad with a simple but sincere meaning.
Providing contrast is "Don't Touch My Ass," a club-ready anthem featuring Mr. Cheeks that borrows its bassline and guitar riff from The Commodores' indelible "Brickhouse."
Of course, the members of BLACKstreet have never been strangers to deeply sensual material, the type of music that serves as the perfect soundtrack to a romantic evening with that special someone, and "Deep" does not disappoint on that score. Riley's use of the Vocoder effect (a tribute to its originator, the late Roger Troutman) adds sizzle to the love-scene heat.
BLACKstreet speaks for the fellas on "You Made Me." A sweeping intro gives way to lush symphonic elements as the track offers a heads-up to women who don't appreciate the men in their lives. Likewise, "Just A Friend Of Mine" is a reprimand to a nosy girlfriend who won't believe her man is faithful. "Every guy knows what it's like to hit the clubs with a girlfriend and feel like you can't speak to anyone else," says Riley. "This record is for them."
Hints of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" can be heard on the jazzy "Why," a gutsy, heart-on-the-sleeve outing braced by stirring vocal vibrato, while the crisply produced "How We Do" finds a man warning his woman not to gauge their love by the observations of others.
According to the members of BLACKstreet, the variety of sounds heard on Level II goes a long way toward explaining its appeal. "We've always been a mixture of gospel, street music and R&B," says Hannibal. "And this album really showcases that. Even when our lyrics are raunchy and over-the-top, you can still hear our roots in the church. And when we do a song obviously based in gospel, we borrow from our funk and soul influences as well."
Riley informs: "Despite the success we've had with songs like "No Diggity," we're probably best known for our ballads, so there are plenty of ballads on Level II. We made sure to have some club tracks like "Wizzy Wow" and some mid-tempo things like "Don't Touch My Ass," but we've been embraced because of our ballads and it's very important to us to please the fans."
Asked about the challenge of returning to the limelight after three years away, Williams says: "What we've been able to achieve in the past has been amazing, so yes, there is some pressure to live up to that. But after so many years, all that matters is that we are family. It feels so natural for us to be together and we're having so much fun that we're not really thinking about anything else."
"I always knew BLACKstreet would reunite," concludes Middleton. "I had faith that everything would come into place and we would continue to create beautiful music. I'm extremely blessed to find out I was right."