After Teena Marie experienced her biggest hit to date with “Lovergirl” from 1984’s STARCHILD, she took a decidedly more rock and roll stance with her next release, EMERALD CITY. “Lovergirl” not only gave her a Top 5 Pop hit, but, also got solid airplay on MTV. This may have inspired Teena to go just a little harder on her next endeavor. Tracks like “Once is Not Enough”, “Lips to Find You” and “You So Heavy” all had a slight rock edge to them. The MTV airplay on “Lovergirl” had introduced Teena to an entire new audience, ironically a “white audience.” Already six albums in, 3 of which had gone Gold on R&B airplay alone, she was virtually unknown to the average white music lover. But “Lovergirl” took STARCHILD to a new sales plateau, garnering Teena her sole platinum album. It was not difficult to understand why Teena may have wanted to continue expanding her base.
After the success of “Lovergirl”, she contemplates if she has indeed found the “Emerald City”. Teena certainly did not betray her R&B roots. But she searched to find the right mix to sate her base while welcoming the new converts to her musical legacy. Yet, she never seems quite sure if it is really something she feels comfortable doing.
The first single was the driving “Lips to Find You”. (The subsequent singles on STARCHILD unfortunately did not chart on the pop chart). Therefore, with the release of “Lips to Find You”, the promotion at pop radio had to begin all over again. The track begins with a scorching rock guitar against an aggressive beat. At the break, Teena sings in confusing confidence, “what are you going to do when there’s nowhere to run, where there’s nowhere to hide”. It is like she is in search of that newfound audience. Then she sings “what are going to for me, do for me, do for me, do for me”. Is she defiantly questioning a fair weather reaction from that newfound audience? Ultimately, she walks away knowing fully well that there is an audience that loves her and will always be there for her. “Lips to Find You” peaked at a respectable, albeit, disappointing #28 on the R&B singles chart based on her starpower at that format.
The follow-up single, “Love Me Down Easy” continues to consider that perplexing dilemma as she returns to the love of her ardent fan base. Ultimately, she makes no concession for she knows where home is.
It is a ballad filled with lament, but, it is not her lost. It is the pop world’s lost for not embracing such a significant talent. She cries out at the end, “easy lover, easy lover, baby love.”
On “You So Heavy”, she asks to “rescue me and my precious cargo. We have short time to be wed, White knights, with silver shadows have placed thoughts in my head. The King and I, in a mystery series much ado about......”. The late Stevie Ray Vaughn brings the track to its close with a signature solo. It is a song that once again could be addressing her attempts to please a crossover audience.
In “Lips to Find You” she references the “southern tip of Spain”. In “Shangri-la” and “Batucada Suite” she once again seems on a quest to find that one place where she can return to what she loves best, soaring, dramatic R&B music.
However, in contrast, she really does triumph with another passionate, jazz-inflected song, the closer, “Sunny Skies”. At the end of this journey, she relaxes into what she does absolutely best. With a beautiful tickling of the ivories, a moody saxophone from none other than Branford Marsalis accentuating her gorgeous vocals and scatting. Stanley Clarke plays the upright bass on this quintessential jazz tune. It reassures the fan that may have been turned inside out by the other tracks that the Teena Marie we all loved and cherished, was going nowhere. (On a compilation, “Love Songs”, there is a fantastic, near 9 minute extended mix of “Sunny Skies”. It ends as a piece played by the jazzy combo of Teena on the piano, Branford on the regal brass and Stanley Clarke standing upright playing bass).
So just like in the “The Wiz,” EMERALD CITY may have all been an illusion. But Teena, like Dorothy, always had the soul residing deep inside of her.
About the Writer
K. Bonin has worked in the music industry for the last three decades. He describes himself as "a child of Motown and the classic rock era." Having spent the balance of his career at Arista Records, his experience and passion gives him a unique perspective on music and the music industry.