“The Best of En Vogue” (EastWest/Elektra), which chronicles one of the most popular pop and R&B girl groups of the ’90s, also makes a solid case for those groups’ import and impact. In 1990, the act blasted onto the scene with “Hold On,” an early and hyper-slick version of what would later be called hip-hop-soul. The group’s youthful vocals were sassy and soaring and a marked contrast to such ’80s girl groups as Vanity 6 and Klymaxx, who could barely sing, much less harmonize.
For its second album, “Funky Divas,” En Vogue created an electrifying hybrid of black Andrews Sisters harmonies, the saucy independence and pop-rock attitude of Janet Jackson and the high-fashion sensibility of Jody Watley. The album, which sold more than 3 million copies, included such radio staples as “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” and a cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Giving Him Something He Can Feel,” both of which are included in the hits package.
Unfortunately, success stoked the group’s internal strife. And by its third album, “EV3,” En Vogue had lost its most charismatic member, Dawn Robinson, and much of the public’s interest.
It’s disappointing but strangely apt that “The Best Of” album reflects the group’s internal tension. “Don’t Let Go (Love),” from the “Set It Off” soundtrack, featured a searing lead by Robinson and was one of the group’s biggest hits. But on the “Best Of” version of the song, Robinson’s vocals have been replaced by a nearly note-by-note mimic from remaining member Terry Ellis that lacks the brazen hunger that made Robinson’s performance so mesmerizing.
“The Best Of” also includes four additional songs recorded by the group’s downsized incarnation, none of which was a substantial hit. Yet it’s missing “You Don’t Have to Worry” and “Don’t Go,” two Top 5 R&B hits that the group recorded as a foursome.
Nonetheless, “The Best Of” remains a largely pleasing collection of the trademark thick grooves and lush harmonies that for a time made En Vogue the definitive R&B girl group of the ’90s. Such major hits as “Lies” and “Whatta Man” (with Salt-N-Pepa) have aged well, and such former sleepers as “Give It Up, Turn It Loose” and “Runaway Love” have gotten better with time.
The companion video compilation further illustrates the reason for the group’s enormous success. In look and sound, En Vogue presented a sexy and stylish R&B girl group ideal. Note how even Disney appropriated the look for the animated funky muses in “Hercules.”
While Robinson’s departure mortally wounded the group, it’s questionable whether even the original incarnation would have been able to thrive in the late-’90s hip-hop/R&B climate, which demands that artists “keep it real.” What made En Vogue so great is that with its show-off harmonies and off-the-runway style, the group probably wouldn’t have even known what “real” meant.