I forgot about you, Sade. Sometime in the last ten or so years I stopped thinking about you. I questioned your relevance. After all, we go way back…
I remember reading about this new singer hailing from Nigeria. Her family moved to the UK when she was four. She lived with her grandparents in Colchester, and made her way to London when she was eighteen to study fashion design at Saint Martin’s School of Art.
The article was in The Face, a UK publication that blew every tired American rag out of the water. Before the Internet, all information I could find on British pop culture was gleaned through magazines. They were the expensive ones on the newsstand, covered in plastic wrap so you couldn’t even flip through them. An $8 magazine purchase was considered an exorbitant amount of money then, so you really rolled the dice when purchasing. The Face was the complete lifestyle fashion culture magazine. Neville Brody was the typographer and the graphic designer, and under his influence it became the thing that was copied the most.
Sade was everything I wanted in soul and jazz, and much more. Her impeccable look, her coolness interested me more than any US diva could. In 1984, in a world where most soul singers gave you all and everything at once, Sade chose to hold back, remain gated, at arm’s length. I got a copy of her first album — Diamond Life — and played that thing to death. Most of my gay friends were really into her, too; the arbiters of good taste, long before the mainstream had even heard of such a singer.
Her follow up — Promise — was even better. She explored a sound that was closer to traditional jazz but still radiated a pop sheen, and the songs were a bit sadder, a bit wiser. The first single, “The Sweetest Taboo,” is a song I’ve heard a thousand times, and only recently re-encountered via a link someone posted on Facebook.
The video starts off with the sound of maracas. A twenty-six-year old Sade is contained, all held energy. She slowly gets into the groove of the song, the polyrhythm of the snare clack and bass drum developing around her. Homegirl is not even snapping her fingers; she allows her hand to direct her movements so calmly, so efficiently, so fully formed. And then she sings, and that voice exhales out. I had forgotten about that rasp, a honeyed slightly-sore-throat-ish sound that takes control and breathes warmth onto the stage. The band is so tight, so many different colors, all syncopated and hustling proud. They are having a great time — rightly so for a song about sex.
Sade is sporting a bolero jacket and mock turtleneck and what appear to be cowboy boots. Her hair is fierce and her makeup flawless; those lips, those eyes. Conducting this tight ship of nine men rather effortlessly. The more I watch this recorded piece of time the more I see. I forget all about the Donnas, Dionnes, and Dianas of the time. The UK’s take on soul music has always been one of improvement; like many forms of music it took the lessons of the US and made them its own.
Sade and her band are often called smooth, and while their sound may be so, her lyrics are not: betrayal, sadness and pain often lie at the center.
She finishes singing. For the last few bars she hangs the mic back up and does a dance. “The Sweetest Taboo” did okay in England, but it did much better in the US, where it peaked at #5 and stayed in the Top 100 for six months. This video has stayed with me for days, and it has given me hope in these last few trying weeks. Sometimes you have to remember your legends while they’re still alive. Sade, you will always be too good for me.