My intention was to include an anecdote about my 18th birthday in this entry, but I checked some dates and my sense of time is slightly off. So that anecdote will have to wait.
BLACKstreet is best known for the #1 pop smash “No Diggity”, a fun enough song which definitely is not the best thing they recorded. “Before I Let You Go” is a sterling ballad that’s one of the best slow jams of the ‘90s. It definitely follows the Boyz II Men Neo-doo wop approach, but also includes digitally manipulated harmony vocals courtesy of Teddy Riley’s vocoder. A little of the past, a little of the (I swear, this was not meant to be a T.R./Guy pun*) future. It was a top ten pop hit at the end of ‘94, although I bet many of you reading would be hard pressed to remember it. I think “Before I Let You Go” was one of those songs whose crossover success was almost exclusively powered by sales and urban radio**.
“Before I Let You Go” was co-written by Leon Sylvers III, who’d changed the sound of Black music a decade and a half before with his productions for Shalamar, The Whispers, Gladys Knight & The Pips and more. I believe Sylvers’ presence added a maturity to the lyrics that wouldn’t have been present otherwise***. I also believe BLACKstreet’s best lineup featured Dave Hollister on lead vocals, which he handles here. Hollister split shortly after this song was a hit, the second in a series of defections/replacements that ultimately doomed the band commercially (no identity if the lineup kept changing) and chemistry-wise (BLACKstreet split up for the first of several times in the early ‘00s.)
Summary: classic slow-jam that bridges genres (or at least bridges periods in soul music), fantastic vocals by Dave Hollister, great behind-the-boards/composition work between two of the best writer/producers of all time (Teddy Riley and Leon Sylvers III), one of the videos that defined my two year infatuation with MTV.
Uh, and one questionable lyric where Hollister might sing “true love is so hard to find/and it’s right between your legs and mine”. On televised performances, he sang “lips”, but my ears tell me otherwise on the studio version. Or I may just be a fuckin’ pervert. All possible.
*-”The Future” was the name of the second album by Riley’s previous group, Guy. It was also the name of Riley’s production company, briefly.
**Super music nerdy tidbit : At the end of 1991, Billboard changed its singles chart methodology to include real point-of-sale data from record stores using a new technology called Soundscan. So, every time someone bought a cassette or CD single (I think 45s were gone by this point), that was submitted to a database which collected the info and spat out a sales chart which (more or less) reflected actual sales as opposed to relying on easy-to-bribe record store clerks or buyers to submit info over the phone. This led to more accurate (higher) chart positions for modern rock, R&B and rap acts (and, somewhat oddly, country acts). Shortly after, Billboard added a bunch of urban stations to the Hot 100 radio panel. This is why, from 1992 or so through the early 2000s (when radio deregulation happened), so many R&B songs also charted high on the pop list.
***The other Sylvers/Riley collab I remember from that period was New Kids On The Block’s “Never Let You Go”. I wonder if that and “Before I Let You Go” were written on, like, the same day.