Dru Hill weren’t exactly innovators in this crowded field, but they could keep stride, vocally, with the best of them.
Consisting of original members Sisqó, Jazz, Woody Rock and Nokio, Dru Hill formed in 1992 in Baltimore, the city’s Druid Hill Parks serving as the inspiration for their name. The group would sign with Island Records, who released their first two albums (not without a good bit of drama, which eventually required the intervention of the Reverend Jesse Jackson). Their debut LP was a certified-platinum success, its first three singles charting in the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 and faring even better on the R&B charts. It was a good time for the all-male R&B group, with powerhouses Blackstreet, Boyz II Men, New Edition and Jodeci also raking in millions of sex-positive dollars during the era.
Dru Hill weren’t exactly innovators in this crowded field, but they could keep stride, vocally, with the best of them. Moreover, the group’s debut was remarkably and infectiously theatrical—that is, both hyperbolically expressive and narrative-driven. Many of the songs on Dru Hill tell love stories with an emphasis on all things sad: tales of loneliness, heartbreak and death.
The plot of “In My Bed,” for example, the group’s first platinum hit, involves Sisqó’s suspicions that his girlfriend has been cheating on him. The first verse sets the scene: he’s “got this feeling” that something’s off, and his friends intensify it with their own misgivings, but he still doesn’t want to believe it’s true. Verse two takes the drama up a notch. Sisqó gets home and now knows for sure that “Something is wrong/ ‘Cause it’s written all over [his girlfriend’s] face.” This is the end, he realizes, and he leaves forever. But not before a final, dramatic reveal: when they made love (at some previous time? in the midst of breaking up?), he heard her call out the name of her other lover (“call out his nay-eee-ayy-aame”). You could use the song to teach three-act narrative structure, preferably in a unit about Goldilocks and the Three Bears, since, after all, somebody’s sleeping in his bed. Perhaps Sisqó’s porridge is too hot as well?
Concluding weepie “5 Steps” takes things another (tragic) step forward to uncover a more ragged form of grief. Again, it’s Sisqó who describes the action: “I sit in silence/ And begin to think/ As laughter echoes/ Through the air.” A proclamation follows (“I can’t get you off my mind”), reveries unfurl and the chorus at the end of this musical road takes place in flashback: “We were five steps/ From eternity.” In other words, the relationship at the song’s center was damn close to transcendent joy and perfect love but couldn’t quite get there before its tragic conclusion. This is wonderfully melodramatic stuff, hammered home by the song’s music video, which finds a friend of the group dying in a fire after trying to return the duffle bag they had accidentally left on a nearby basketball court.
Other great R&B songs from the era imply narrative (“Can You Stand the Rain” and “End of the Road” immediately come to mind), but Dru Hill brought story to the fore. Maybe, in fact, a little too much story, since it would be competing narratives that led to their multiple breakups and failed reunions. There was Sisqó’s emerging solo career (which merely exacerbated his prima donna tendencies), Jazz’s second-in-command loyalty and, most important of all, Woody’s gospel-driven path to righteousness (see 2:49 in this roller coaster of a video from 2008). Their very first album already highlights these strands: Sisqó’s voice dominates on a majority of tracks (and three of four singles), Jazz steps up when Sisqó steps aside to remove his already-unbuttoned blouses and Woody gets his one—but only one—“God is love” joint (“April Showers”), a recurring feature across their three major LPs.
These diverse energies are part of the group’s appeal. Watching their early performances (this one is recommended), you get a sense of not only their jaw-dropping musical talents but also their together-by-a-golden-thread harmony. Their voices blend gorgeously, even when improvising (as they’d done since their fudgery days), but something’s nearly off. One can’t help but anticipate the thrill of implosion, which will likely be instigated by one of Sisqó’s conspicuous vocal entrances (particularly the “Aaaaare you ready?” on the second verse of “Satisfied”).
The distinctive appeal of aforementioned “All Alone,” however, resides in its hopefulness. While the lyrics are as lonely as a rainy COVID afternoon, the song’s structure allows each of our characters a chance to shine: Woody opens, Jazz comes second, Nokio finally gets to sing something by himself, Sisqó goes to town on the chorus and the four sing all together in the bridge before returning to the chorus for a final go-round. As a whole, it implies that the recognition of their isolation on an individual level brings them together on a metaphysical one, where their surface-level to-myself-ness is the origin point of empathic community. It’s an idea to embrace for all time, but our moment of quarantine and quiet clarifies its significance.