The enigmatic British singer Helen Folasade Adu , or known to fans as Sade, has not released many albums in 37 years, but when she does, it is a grand statement. Like the reclusive Kate Bush, Sade likes her privacy and time away from from the demands of pop stardom.
Sade’s voice is instantly recognizable; the smooth, low tones that flow like honey around a cool, jazz groove. Haunting, her musical style bends genres into something unique. I have always been drawn to unique, something that stands out among the generic sounds of pop music. From the first listen of “Smooth Operator” from her debut album Diamond Life, I knew she was something different. Although her musical style generally consists of pop, R&B and jazz, there is a World Music vibe that smolders within her music.
To be fair, music coming out of England in the early to mid 1980s was embracing an R&B/dance beat. Check the charts during that period and you’ll find the Pet Shop Boys, Swing Out Sister, Spandau Ballet, Rick Astley, ABC, New Order and many others incorporating rhythms and funky grooves onto more traditional pop stylings. Young audiences seized on this energy, like punk of a few years earlier, and disco in the previous decade.
Sade did not try to imitate, what her and her band brought had more of a Latin/Island vibe and her relaxed, soulful vocals were closer to great jazz and R&B singers of the past, in that she used her voice as a versatile instrument. She was able to deliver a vocal intimacy on record that connected with an international audience. Even on a more conventional ballad, “Your Love is King”, you hear the various emotional textures in his voice. The word “sultry” is perhaps part of the description of her appeal. Think of vocalists with that kind of magic, like a champion skater, being able to pivot, dance and glide effortlessly, as you hang on each move, in Sade’s case, each word.
Diamond Life (1984) The debut album charted moderately in the U.S., but was a hit all around the world with sales exceeding 10 million copies, including four million in the U.S. Besides “Your Love is King” and “Smooth Operator”, “When Am I Going to Make a Living” and “Hang Onto Your Love” were singles from the album.
Promise (1985) She returned a year later with Promise, which topped the U.K and U.S. charts. “The Sweetest Taboo” was the debut single, reaching number five in the U.S. “Is It a Crime” and “Never As Good As the First Time” were also released as singles.
Stronger Than Pride (1988) Sade started taking more time between projects. Stronger Than Pride also placed in the top 10 in America and sold nearly as many as her previous albums. Five singles were released from the album including the title track, “Paradise”, “Nothing Can Come Between Us”, “Turn My Back On You” and “Haunt Me”. Sade had a lot of success on the Adult Contemporary and Hot R&B charts as well.
Love Deluxe (1992) I believe this to be her best album. It was in the top five albums on the chart and again sold over three million copies in the U.S. For some reason, reviews of this album were fair to good, but not up to her previous works. I’m not sure if critics felt she was repeating herself or not as hypnotic as earlier work. Her work was now being called understated and detached. I believe this work to be deeper and more sophisticated than earlier albums, which might account for the dip in reaction. Of the four singles released, “Kiss of Life” and “No Ordinary Love” are the best.
Lovers Rock (2000) Eight years would pass until Sade resurfaced. Broadening her style beyond the laid-back jazz, to incorporate different shades of reggae and World Music beats. The album reached number three on the U.S. charts and sold more than previous albums. Critics praised how she did not deviate from her vocal style or stop singing about the virtues and pain of love. Stick with what you do best, and she has. Her arrangements never overpower her style, you want to hear the ache and anguish, along side the mellow but joyous happiness. The singles were “King of Sorrow” and “By Your Side”. Again, the production was simplified and focused on her voice.
Lovers Live (2002) Her only live album, recorded on the tour for Lovers Rock. This album was quite successful, reaching number ten on the U.S. chart, unusual for a live recording. Reviews were positive, the recording seemed to capture the voice that people knew. Drawing from a cross-section of her work, this was really an album for fans.
Soldier of Love (2010) The title track won a Grammy Award for Best R&B performance. The album debuted at number one on the U.S. chart and sold over a million copies, now in the age of streaming and downloaded music. Three singles were released from the album, which seems to pick up where Lovers Rock ended, ten years ago. Her voice, now more mature, seems even better able to deliver the sultry and soulful vocals. Love is joyous and heartbreaking and she continues to capture it, although with more experience now.