The Number Ones: Silk’s “Freak Me”


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There’s a pattern that I’ve noticed repeating itself throughout pop history. Sometimes, when a major new mold-breaking artist emerges, a hornier equivalent of that same artist will come along within the next year or so. Plenty of those hornier-version artists become massively popular themselves. Some even become legends. But in just about every case, the hornier version couldn’t exist if the less-horny one hadn’t arrived first.

Consider: Elvis Presley was already plenty horny, but you could make the argument that Jerry Lee Lewis was a hornier and more generally unhinged version of that Elvis persona. When the Rolling Stones first emerged, they existed in the public consciousness as a hornier and surlier Beatles. Prince and Michael Jackson were peers for a few years before both of them went supernova. In the post-Thriller era, Prince stood out for a lot of reasons, but one of those reasons was that he presented a freakier take on Jackson’s larger-than-life post-genre mega-pop. Before Britney Spears became the horny version of herself, Christina Aguilera was the horny Britney. None of these are one-to-one comparisons, and maybe this is all a great oversimplification, but it’s just something that I’ve noticed. The existence of one hugely popular artist tends to open up the market for someone to present a more sex-drunk version of that artist’s sound.

Even before Boyz II Men landed their first #1 hit, it must’ve been obvious to a whole lot of music-business types that there was now an open lane for a hornier Boyz II Men. Boyz II Men were not exactly mold-breakers; all-male R&B vocal groups had been chart mainstays even before the dawn of the rock ‘n’ roll era. But Boyz II Men did present a new version of that archetype. They filled the vacuum that opened when New Edition broke up, and they had a former New Edition member as their manager and mentor. At first, Boyz II Men rode the new jack swing wave that lifted up fellow vocal groups like Color Me Badd and Hi-Five. But when Boyz II Men truly blew up, it was because they fused rich ’70s Philly soul balladry with melodramatic Mariah Carey-style vocal theatrics.

Boyz II Men weren’t necessarily averse to singing about sex, and they’ll eventually do that in this column. Still, Boyz II Men were polite, almost courtly, and they were never going to hit full erotic overdrive. But somebody would. In the months after Boyz II Men’s “End Of The Road” shattered chart records, a whole lot of other groups surged into the spotlight. One of them was going to become the hornier version of Boyz II Men, and the only question was which of those prospects would fill that spot.

Early on, the smart money was probably on Atlanta’s Silk. Silk had rich, layered gospel-trained harmonies and of-the-moment production, and like Boyz II Men, they also had an established R&B star as a mentor. In the moment after that “End Of The Road” chart triumph, Silk notched a #1 hit of their own, and that hit was a whole lot freakier than anything that Boyz II Men ever made. That hit even had “freak” right there in the title.

“Freak” is such an underrated word. It can be a noun or a verb, and it transforms easily into an adjective if you just add one letter onto the end. The precise definition is never quite clear, but the connotation always is. “Freak” doesn’t necessarily mean sex, but it’s always sexual. It implies something outré, something just outside the bounds of the conventional.

When I was in high school, dances were pretty much freakfests. It would just be kids grinding their junk into each other. Sometimes, it would be entire lines of 10 or 15 kids, all grinding their junk into the ass of whoever was standing in front of them, simulating some kind of unthinkable human-centipede group-sex situation. These kids didn’t move their feet, and they barely moved their hands. It was all just junk grinding on junk. Teachers and chaperones would passive-aggressively complain, but nobody ever stopped the kids. For a vast chunk of the ’90s, this was simply how kids danced. At least in my high school, we called it freaking, and those lines of kids were called freak lines. (Eventually, this column will cover a song that’s explicitly about dancing with a boner, a situation presumably caused by a freaking scenario.) Maybe we had Silk to thank.

Silk started out in late-’80s Atlanta, and all the members grew up singing in church. A few of them were related. A few went to high school together. Some of them met because they worked at the same McDonald’s. When the group came together, they’d practice in that McDonald’s after closing time, trying out Temptations and New Edition steps. Eventually, they started singing together at churches and talent shows. One of their first public performances was at a talent show where their Atlanta peer Chris Tucker served as MC.

Eventually, Silk signed on with a manager named Louise Ferguson. Her husband Lonnie worked a the road manager for Keith Sweat, an R&B singer who’d come up in the late-’80s new jack swing wave. Sweat had been a nightclub singer for years, keeping that dream alive while working a series of day jobs. For a little while, he was a brokerage assistant at the New York Stock Exchange. In 1987, Sweat and Teddy Riley co-wrote Sweat’s debut single “I Want Her,” a foundational new jack swing jam. (“I Want Her” peaked at #5. It’s an 8.)

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Keith Sweat was all over R&B radio. He could do uptempo jams like “I Want Her,” and he could also sing pleading slow jams. Another single, the 1990 ballad “I’ll Give All My Love To You,” also went top-10, peaked at #7. (It’s a 6.) In the summer of 1991, Sweat went to a Fourth of July barbecue at Louise and Lonnie Ferguson’s house, and he met Silk. Some kids at the party knew Silk were a group and asked them to sing, so Silk harmonized on a version of “Greatest Love Of All.” While they were singing, the members of Silk looked over and realized that Keith Sweat was singing with them. That same night, Sweat invited Silk to the studio to sing backup for him.

Keith Sweat was working on his 1991 album Keep It Comin’, and Silk sang on the album track “Give Me What I Want.” Sweat took Silk on tour as his backing vocalists, and he showcased them on Arsenio. In the Unsung episode about Silk, Sweat says, “I made them some Mini-Me Keith Sweats.”

When they first started working with Sweat, Silk didn’t have a proper lead singer. The group’s membership shifted around a couple of times, and a gifted Nashville-born vocalist named Gary “Lil G” Jenkins joined up, becoming Silk’s lead singer. Eventually, Silk broke away from Louise Ferguson, and Keith Sweat got them signed to Elektra. Sweat co-wrote and co-produced virtually everything on the group’s 1992 debut album Lose Control, and he also guested on lead single “Happy Days,” which was a decent hit on R&B radio but which only made it to #86 on the Hot 100.

Lose Control is a horny album throughout, but its horniest song by far is “Freak Me,” the one with the chorus about licking you up and down till you say stop and also about playing with your body, baby, making you real hot. Keith Sweat co-wrote “Freak Me” with Roy Murray and co-produced it with someone named TH. (Sweat’s collaborators on the song wouldn’t do too much else of note.) “Freak Me” could’ve probably just been a Keith Sweat song, but his vocal style was always pretty controlled, and a song like “Freak Me” needed a singer who could get go completely off the rails. Gary “Lil G” Jenkins was that singer.

“Freak Me” is not a complicated song. It’s not a shy song, either. There’s no innuendo on “Freak Me.” The song’s lyrics just come out and say everything. The production screams early-’90s, even if those spacious 808 thud-claps and echo-drenched synths had been part of the musical language of R&B ever since Marvin Gaye made “Sexual Healing” a decade earlier. The track is slow and sweaty, and it’s built to give the singers in Silk plenty of room to moan and howl and express freaky euphoria.

The first verse of “Freak Me” is probably the funniest. When R&B songs have breathy spoken-word breakdowns, those breathy spoken-word breakdowns usually show up near the end of the track. Not here! Instead, Timzo Cameron, the group’s bass singer, delivers that first verse in a voice that’s somewhere between LL Cool J’s “I Need Love” murmur-coo flow and Barry White in full rumbling erotic-soliloquy mode. Baby, don’t you understand? Timzo Cameron wants to be your nasty man. He wants to hear your body scream, and you will know just what he means.

On the second verse, Cameron is still intoning his deep nothings. He loves the taste of whipped cream — spread it on, don’t be mean. He wants to see your body drip. Come on, let him take a sip. But even as Timzo Cameron keeps going with those horny nursery rhymes, Gary “Lil G” Jenkins is practically jumping out of his skin, screaming passionate ad-libs all over the beat. Eventually, Jenkins takes over. He doesn’t have any verses to himself, but he becomes the focus of the song. The other guys in the group sing their hook a bunch of times, while Jenkins goes into the blackout zone, twisting his voice into pretzels in an effort to convey just how much he wants to get fah-reek-ay with you.

In a way, virtually all secular R&B music takes gospel, with all its methods of translating states of euphoric transcendence into music, and applies those methods to more earthly concerns. On “Freak Me,” Jenkins gives a textbook example. He sounds like he’s having an out-of-body experience, almost drifting outside the bounds of melody and meter. His high tenor spins and twirls and soars. This is gospel singing, and he’s using it to describe how much he wants to lick you up and down.

“Freak Me” is a seduction and an invitation. It’s more than a little goofy, but it’s not quite exploitative. Instead, the members of Silk sing about doing all the things that their partners want them to do. They specifically want to please. Nakedly sexual pop hits were nothing new, but “Freak Me” still pushes the boundaries of what we’ve seen in this column. When “Freak Me” hit #1, it replaced Exile’s “Kiss You All Over,” as the frankest cunnilingus-themed chart-topper in Hot 100 history. We’ve got a bunch more sexual obviousness coming up soon, too. The American record-buying public was horny in those early Clinton years.

The members of Silk were all church kids who’d come up singing gospel, and they were a little scared to record a song like “Freak Me.” In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number One Hits, Silk member Gary “Big G” Glenn, who was still working as a Domino’s manager when Silk recorded “Freak Me,” says, “I was the choirboy. I heard what the lyrics were saying, and everybody looked at me. I looked around the room and just dedicated myself to singing the song. I didn’t think it would be a hit. I didn’t want this to be how we’re known.” (I’m not a Biblical scholar, but from where I’m sitting, it’s really not that bad to sing a song called “Freak Me.” I’d be much more concerned for my immortal soul if I’d been involved in sending Domino’s pizzas out into the world.)

When Silk released “Happy Days” as their first single, they were dismayed to find out that R&B radio stations were a whole lot more interested in playing “Freak Me.” Finally, Elektra picked “Freak Me” as the group’s second single, and it took a quick trip up the Hot 100. I was in seventh grade when “Freak Me” hit, and I can tell you that it got a whole lot of burn at middle-school dances. (They would just play whatever at those things. There were no rules.) When the members of Silk went back to church after “Freak Me” hit, most of the congregants were just happy and excited for them.

Silk made two videos for “Freak Me” — one fairly straightforward clip with no women in it, and a more literally steamy clip for the not-very-different “Jeep Beat Mix” of the song. Bronwen Hughes, director of the first “Freak Me” video, would later make the Harriet The Spy movie, while Lionel C. Martin, director of the second, would become the auteur behind the Bill Bellamy vehicle How To Be A Player. In the Bronson book, Glenn says that Silk learned “Freak Me” had hit #1 when they were shooting the video for their next single “Girl U For Me“: “We said a prayer to God and toasted among ourselves, and that was our moment. Our biggest moment.”

It was their moment. “Girl U For Me” peaked at #26, and the Lose Control album went double platinum. Soon afterwards, Silk split away from Keith Sweat, who remained a huge star throughout the ’90s. (Keith Sweat doesn’t have any #1 hits of his own, but he did get to #2 with “Twisted,” his 1996 collaboration with girl-group proteges Kut Klose. It’s a 7.) Silk came out with their self-titled sophomore album in 1995. Lead single “Hooked On You” peaked at #54, and the album stalled out at gold. Silk never returned to the top 10, but they kept working. The group’s second-biggest hit was “If You (Lovin’ Me),” the lead single from their platinum 1999 album Tonight; it peaked at #13.

Silk never broke up, though Gary “Lil G” Jenkins temporarily left the group, releasing a solo album and starring in Tyler Perry’s original Madea’s Family Reunion stage play. Jenkins eventually rejoined Silk, and they kept putting out music on an indie level. As of right now, Silk’s last album is 2016’s Quiet Storm. The group still tours on the nostalgia circuit, often playing shows with a whole lot of other R&B vocal groups from that era.

Silk did not become the hornier version of Boyz II Men. There was a lot of competition for that spot. A few months before “Freak Me” arrived at #1, Shai, a group whose members met at DC’s Howard University, spent eight weeks stuck at #2 with the incandescent slow jam “If I Ever Fall In Love.” (It’s an 8.) While “Freak Me” was still at #1, Shai broke into the top 10 with their follow-up “Comforter,” which peaked at #10. (It’s a 7.)

Shai carried themselves with more swagger than Boyz II Men, but their lyrics generally weren’t out-and-out sexual. The Houston trio H-Town, proteges of 2 Live Crew leader Luke, were a little more outwardly sexual. A few weeks after “Freak Me” fell from #1, H-Town got as high as #3 with “Knockin’ Da Boots,” a song that made no attempt to disguise its intentions. (It’s a 6.) All these groups were part of the same wave, and they all played shows together. Silk, Shai, and H-Town spent the summer of 1993 on the Coca Cola Summer Fest tour, which also had LL Cool J, Naughty By Nature, Jade, and future Number Ones artists SWV.

But none of those groups turned out to be the horny Boyz II Men. Instead, that distinction went to Jodeci, two pairs of gospel-singing brothers who came from Charlotte and who signed with Andre Harrell’s Uptown Records. Harrell assigned Jodeci to Sean “Puffy” Combs, his intern-turned-A&R whiz kid. Puffy dressed Jodeci in hoodies and Timberlands, like rappers, and he got them to record bedroom jams over heavy beats. Jodeci’s four singers were all hugely gifted, and they could all do straightforward old-school soul. The group’s biggest hit, after all, was their 1993 MTV Unplugged cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Lately,” which peaked at #4. (It’s an 8.) But that’s not Jodeci’s true legacy. Instead, Jodeci presented themselves as dangerous young men who were also romantics. In doing so, they influenced an entire generation of singers, rappers, and producers, some of whom were mentored by the members of Jodeci themselves.

These days, you could make the argument that Jodeci were the single most influential male R&B group of the ’90s — more important, even, than Boyz II Men. Jodeci never even had a “Freak Me,” let alone an “End Of The Road,” but it didn’t matter. Like New Edition before them, Jodeci never made a #1 hit of their own. But like New Edition, Jodeci helped set a new template. We won’t see Jodeci in this column, but we’ll see group members K-Ci & JoJo. We’ll see Puffy, too.

GRADE: 6/10

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