(October 26, 2019). Whatever strength R&B singer Michel’le Denise Toussaint mustered to endure the abuse levied upon her by the two most important men in her professional and personal life during the 1990s and ‘00s must have come from somewhere deep within her soul.
And from that same place must have come the power to elevate her voice from the baby-girl whimper in her speaking elocution to the powerhouse vocalist that gave us one of the dopest début albums in R&B history!
That album was Michel’le, the self-titled instant classic produced by then-boyfriend and future mega-producer Dr. Dre – formerly of the iconic rap group NWA – and released October 23, 1989, on the now-inactive Ruthless Records.
It came from a then-18-year-old Michel’le (she would turn 19 that December before the album really blew up). The native of Los Angeles may have been a very young teen at the time, but she was “100% woman,” as she would assert multiple times on the album, and her singing style and lyrics far exceeded her years.
Michel’le wasn’t so new to the hip-hop/R&B game or to the mature lyrical themes she sang about in 1989. She had been a featured vocalist on World Class Wreckin’ Cru’s “Turn Off the Lights” in 1987 at age 16, when she sang the hook with the conviction of a woman twice her age: “Before you turn off the lights, let’s get one thing understood…if you plan to make love to me, you’ve got to do it good. Cuz I’m a hell of a woman, and for me it takes a hell of a man…”
Indeed those were bold words coming from someone who was just finishing elementary school only three years earlier.
So there should have been no doubt two years after the Wreckin’ Cru stint when she first hit us with the funky “No More Lies” that she knew what she was singing about. Quite simply, the song meant what it said – and Michel’le was singing at the top of her lungs about her own relationship with Dr. Dre, the rapper/producer whose inability to commit was notorious (their kid together in 1991 was his fourth with a different woman in less than a decade).
That Dre co-wrote “No More Lies” with Michel’le was somewhat of a marvel considering he was the song’s target. When she declared “you’ve played your last game!” during the bridge in that now-famous little girl talking voice, who among us pictured that Michel’le might actually be directing those words at her lover sitting behind the production boards?
But that was pretty much the story of the whole album: Michel’le singing songs of self-assertion and her liberation from lame men who were all about games and lies, when her reality couldn’t have been further from the truth.
By her own accounts, the singer remained in a physically abusive relationship with Dre – and later with Death Row Records mogul Suge Knight – for years, and the only real professional achievement she had to show for the pain she endured was, well, Michel’le, the album that eventually sold over a million copies and generated three monster hit singles over an 18-month period.
The first of them, “No More Lies,” was all over the airwaves – and by early 1990, the song was in the top ten on both the Billboard R&B and pop singles charts, reaching No. 2 and No. 7, respectively, and going gold in the process.
“No More Lies” was a stroke of production genius by Dre, with its arrangement of Michel’le’s powerful vocals (her scatting hadn’t been heard in R&B in years), the blending of hip-hop and new-jack beats, and the clever looping of Dre’s spoken “lies” throughout.
Repeatedly looped raps of “you’re special,” “you know I love you” and “of course you’re the only one for me” were scattered throughout as Michel’le declared there’d be no more of that. The song was essentially a young couple playing out their relationship right before our eyes. In retrospect, the irony was uncanny.
“No More Lies” was followed – both on the album and as a single release – by the equally funky “Nicety,” a portmanteau of “Nice” and “Nasty.”
Like “Lies,” (which had sampled James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”), “Nicety” included another JB sample (“Funky President”). As a somewhat slower groove than its immediate predecessor, “Nicety” was no less a club banger, with Dre on the boards and on the mic providing his raps and ad-libs while Michel’le sang her ass off.
“Nicety” wasn’t as big a chart smash as “No More Lies,” but it was still a top-five R&B and top-30 pop hit and some have contended that it was even funkier than her debut single. Thematically, the song tackled some of the same topics as “Lies” with Michel’le exuding a “no more games” self-assuredness throughout.
Yet despite all the confidence she portrayed on the album’s first two singles, this was still a vulnerable young teenager in real life – one who really couldn’t successfully navigate the unhealthy relationships she found herself in and one whose best interests as a developing professional and as a person were apparently not in the hearts and minds of those around her (she noted that Wreckin’ Cru’s DJ Alonzo didn’t even pay her for “Turn Off The Lights” during her shout-outs in the album track “Special Thanks”).
Fans couldn’t have known about Michel’le’s dire circumstances from listening to the album’s third single release, “Keep Watchin’” – another uptempo man-diss that portrayed Michel’le as the strong woman with the capability to shed any useless and unwanted baggage from her life.
The song was good but it didn’t do well on the charts; it peaked at No. 65 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and failed to even make the Hot 100.
But it did pave the way for what would be considered the album’s masterpiece…a stellar follow-up ballad that would become the fourth single release and one that stretched the album’s shelf-life far beyond what its creators could have imagined.
“Something In My Heart,” the album’s signature ballad, was released in late 1990 and slowly made its way up the charts, peaking on the R&B chart (No. 2) and the pop chart (No. 31) in March 1991. It would remain on both charts for 22 weeks each and not leave the Hot 100 until June (nearly two years after the album’s release).
There were three ballads on the album – not counting the jazzy reprise of “If?” – and “Something” was clearly the standout.
Perhaps it was the song’s irresistible melody or the singer’s heartbreaking performance that won over listeners – it propelled Michel’le, the album, to the million-sales mark more than a year after its release. But the artist’s personal circumstances at the time certainly lent some legitimacy to the song’s heart-wrenching lyrics.
By 1991, Michel’le, at 20, was engaged to Dre and pregnant with their child, Marcel. She would eventually leave the producer after discovering he was simultaneously engaged to someone else (his current wife).
In essence, “Something In My Heart” was Michel’le’s love song to Dre – although he co-wrote it with her – and its lyrics couldn’t have been more personal. That’s something music fans have always connected with, especially those who’ve experienced similar pain and longing in their relationships.
“Something in My Heart” paved the way for a fifth single release, the draggy romantic ballad “If?” It was likely Ruthless Records’ attempt to capitalize on the momentum of its predecessor, although “If?” was perhaps the most inferior of the album’s ballads – and arguably the worst song on the album.
The song didn’t work thanks in large part to the male vocalist over-singing his parts (was Dre really in the studio imploring this guy to scat and stutter while singing “If I make l-l-l-l-l-lu-uh-uv…”?).
There were certainly better choices for a fifth single release from Michel’le than “If?,” like the uptempo tracks “100% Woman” or “Never Been in Love,” the latter of which may have been the best chance to return Michel’le to the singles charts.
The ballad “Close to Me” was a slow groove that better showcased Michel’le’s ability to sing straight-up melody. It was perhaps the most uniquely R&B track on the album and would have returned her at least to that chart’s upper half had Ruthless gone with it.
Or perhaps the label would have been best served to stop issuing singles altogether after “Something in My Heart.” By late 1991, the now two-year-old album had run its course and it was definitely time for a follow-up LP.
As legend has it, Michel’le’s future boyfriend and “husband” Suge Knight would – through nefarious means – secure her and Dre’s release from Ruthless and sign them to his new label Death Row Records in 1991. It would be seven more years before a proper Michel’le follow-up album (1998’s unsuccessful Hung Jury) was released, although she did unmemorably contribute to “Let’s Play House” a 1995 G-funk-era single by Death Row duo Tha Dogg Pound.
In retrospect, that song was pretty dope (Michel’le’s deadpanned “London Bridges falling down” nursery rhyme-like lyric at the coda was clever at the very least).
While “House” was becoming a moderate chart hit in 1995, the song did cause many people to reflect on Michel’le’s earlier success with some wondering aloud whether the one-time hip-hop/R&B princess might be on the verge of a comeback. She was still only 24 and certainly among the most talented of her contemporaries at the time.
But it was never to be. Hung Jury came during Death Row’s accelerating demise – after the death of its marquee artist Tupac Shakur and after the departure of Dr. Dre, who had left to form his own Aftermath label. For any number of reasons, Death Row likely couldn’t promote Hung Jury as well as Ruthless (and parent distributor Atco/Atlantic) had marketed Michel’le.
Or, more accurately, Hung Jury just wasn’t as good as that début album – an album that stands as one of the best débuts of its kind to this day, with three huge hit singles and several album cuts that let listeners know that Michel’le – the woman whose uncanny ability to pull a full-throated contralto from a baby-sounding speaking voice – would have been a greater force to reckon with under different circumstances.
After giving birth to their first child (and her second), Michel’le eventually parted ways with label boss Suge Knight (her 1999 marriage to him was reportedly voided by the fact that he was still married to someone else at the time, a recurring theme in her life).
She later found temporary success on TV One’s reality TV series R&B Divas LA from 2013-15, and has since written an autobiographical book about her experiences with Dre and Suge called Surviving Compton.
But her crowning achievement remains Michel’le, the 1989 hip-hop & R&B hybrid that took the pop, R&B and hip-hop worlds by storm and set the stage for the Mary J. Bliges, Faith Evanses and Aaliyahs of the world to follow.
On the occasion of its 30th anniversary, djrobblog salutes Michel’le – both the album and the tragically unsung artist who made it.
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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