My favorite SWV album, ‘Release Some Tension,’ is 25 years old

By greatbritton

Leanne “Lelee” Lyons, Tamara “Taj” Johnson-George and Coko Clemons of SWV perform onstage during day 1 of 2021 ONE Musicfest at Centennial Olympic Park on October 9, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Prince Williams/Wireimage)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

I’m one of those people who isn’t quite stuck in the 1990s but does believe that the ’90s are one—if not the—best decade for music and fashion. How the decade started versus how it ended ran the entire gamut of what seems to have been possible in every facet of art and culture. There’s a reason why ’90s parties are super popular regardless of race, creed or color. 

For me, the music was pure magic. And one of those groups that made magical music was (is) SWV, Sisters With Voices, from New York City. They embodied the best of the hip-hop/R&B era of the early ’90s, with soulful jams, beats to keep you moving and vocals to remind you that “sisters with voices” wasn’t just a random name. Their first two albums, 1992’s It’s About Time and 1996’s New Beginning, are amazing records (and who can forget the classic “Anything” remix from the Above the Rim soundtrack). And I mean, “You’re the One” from New Beginning is a pantheon-level cheat jam. But it was 1997’s Release Some Tension that held my entire attention.

Released on August 12, 1997, which was like a week or so before I began my freshman year at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Release Some Tension is an album full of hip-hop and R&B mashups and features galore; eight of the 12 songs on the album include a feature, something that I believe they didn’t love, according to their episode of TVOne’s Unsung

While the number of features is a lot, it oddly doesn’t feel forced, and it’s a who’s who of hot artists at the time who are not overpowering the record but complimenting just enough to make the song work. For instance, Foxy Brown fits perfectly into the groove on the title record. Even Lil’ Cease of Junior M.A.F.I.A. fame works on the “Love Like This” record, which samples Lil Kim’s “Crush On You” (or uses the same sample anyway). And Lil’ Kim also shows up on “Give It Up.” The two best songs on the album, though, don’t feature any outside voices and make space for Coko, Taj and LeLee to do what they do best…harmonize and employ those unique vocal stylings with fabulous results. “Rain” was their last top 10 R&B hit and could be heard blaring out of cars and dorm rooms all throughout 1997. Coko’s voice is a gift, pure and simple, and the way she digs into those verses on “Rain” is why you show up. But the harmonizing to close out the song is why you stay because those women could bring me to tears. 

My other favorite song on the Release Some Tension is “When U Cry,” a song that samples Tyrone Davis’ “In the Mood” and is super smooth and sultry. It’s a song about not giving up on love. Keeping with the hip-hop theme of the album is an R&B version of MC Eiht’s 1994 record, “All for the Money.” 

But those aren’t the only standouts. For instance, the singles “Can We” featuring Missy Elliot and “Someone” featuring Puffy Daddy were radio staples, and for good reason. The beats knocked and the songs jammed. One thing SWV was always good at doing was giving a sold R&B melody over a beat that any rapper would love to hop on and turn into their next big single; perhaps that’s why there were so many rap features on the record. It was entirely built to mesh the two worlds together. Bay Area rapper E-40 hops on the song “Come and Get Some,” and let me tell you, I didn’t think this song would work at first but it quickly climbed up the ladder of favorites. Plus, the end vocal runs that Coko goes on truly bring the song and sentiment home. 

Some records change the game. Some records change the sound of music. Other records, though, are just good, and while they might not be innovative, they are well produced, sung and executed and that’s where SWV was with Release Some Tension. This album was full of songs that were just plain ole good and listenable. They have high replay value and could be played anywhere from the club to the car with ease. 

Release Some Tension is an album that I can and do listen to with frequency even in 2022 because one thing that always shines through in SWV’s music was their singing. Sometimes you just need to hear some singing that makes you feel good and that’s what they provide. 1997’s Release Some Tension was an album full of good singing and amazing music and that is a winning combo for any group. Especially my favorite R&B group of the ’90s, full stop. 

Happy birthday, Release Some Tension. You are the real MVP.

Panama Jackson

Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things and drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest) but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said “Unknown” (Blackest).

Make sure you check out the Dear Culture podcast every Thursday on theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, where I’ll be hosting some of the Blackest conversations known to humankind. You might not leave the convo with an afro, but you’ll definitely be looking for your Afro Sheen! Listen to Dear Culture on TheGrio’s app; download here.

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