Riddle Me List: The 8 Best Teena Marie Albums

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

When Teena Marie's name is uttered usually about five songs come instantly to mind. "I Need Your Lovin'", "Square Biz", "Fire & Desire" with Rick James, "Casanova Brown", and "Lovergirl". Yeah, the choruses are probably reeling in your brain right now. Whilst those are essential notations in the Ivory Queen of Soul's catalog, those barely scratch the surface of Ms. Marie's girth. Like with Michael Jackson, Teddy Pendergrass, and others who recently took place in the heavenly choir, going back through the imprints they left in the music world is one of the best moments of the tribute. In Teena Marie's case, she had an abundance of work, work that will finally be explored by those curious of what she laid down in her 30+ singing career. Her final album, 2009's Congo Square, had to have ushered in further interest along with a recent appearance on  TV One's UnSung which explained her influence to the music world better than anyone ever could. 

Still, Teena Marie can be erroneously described as a "singles artist", one who doesn't assemble albums, but manages to put out singular moments of notation. Miss Vanilla Child is not this by a long shot, and I think it's time now to really correct that false assumption considering her passing. Instead of doing a typical tribute piece, like a good little Audio Diva I decided to write-up a sort of "guide" to those who are curious to discover more Teena Marie outside of the usual hits and hits compilations. So, here are eight albums that I favor, and think could really be the first pit stops into 'getting into' Teena Marie as they embody her attention to detail and ability to bend genres a bit. Even though I encourage anyone to go further than the eight I have presented, it still doesn't hurt to get a nice little kick start, now does it?

8. Naked To The World (1988)
After the ice bath of Emerald City in 1986, Naked To The World warms things up in a nice R&B glow. It's notable in that it features Teena's lone #1 hit, "Ooo La La" (which 90's kids like myself may remember The Fugees borrowing the chorus for their hit "Fu-Gee-La") which as you can hear below is another showpiece for Teena's impeccable range. The remainder of the album is just as engaging, and Teena's smoothest execution since Irons In The Fire. Rick James pops up on two tracks trying to spark what "Fire & Desire" and "I'm A Sucker (For Your Love)" started, but the real magic happens at the opener of "Trick Bag", a fiery synth number that doesn't let up until it fades on out. Marvin Gaye notations pop up on the intriguing "The Ball", and "Surrealistic Pillow" is waiting for it's Prince to come as a duet partner. Personally, "Work It" is the standout, it's clang-clang be-bop beat is really hard to resist.

7. Ivory (1990)
New Jack was in full swing, and Teena went with the times on her first album of the 90's. She enlisted Ricky Bell from Bel Biv Devoe, Soul II Soul, and Bernadette Cooper for Ivory, and their presence is quite expressed in this collection as notes of hip-hop and house music appear. While Ivory is usually one album that most people don't particularly clamor at being her finest, there is something in the production of this that really feels right at home to me. Teena does flex those heart strings on tracks like "Cupid Is A Real Straight Shooter", personal favorite, "Just Us Two", and the staggering, "If I Were A Bell", yet there are other interesting avenues on this. "How Can You Resist It" has an acoustic-folk feeling, and "The Red Zone" kicks off with a noteworthy poem into being another social conscious moment in Teena's cannon. Of course New Jack dance romps like "Sugar Shack" and the slinky, "Snap Your Fingers" are keep you on your toes as well.

6. Robbery (1983)  
Concept albums are usually reserved for rock acts like Pink Floyd and The Who...and yeah, probably Prince on a good day, but R&B artists are usually excluded from that list of albums because well...they make party and baby making jams and that's not challenging enough for some critics. Well, Robbery is a party and baby making jam packed concept album, so ha! Teena's first release on Epic Records, chronicles her turbulent relationship with her mentor and fellow funk master, the late Rick James. It really does play like a Dear John Letter, in the most funkiest way of course. "Casanova Brown" fully sums up Rick James in one little bundle, but the album in full is all about the "robbing" of the heart, infatuation, betrayal, yearning for what was, and the ultimate demise. Anyone can feel something on tracks such as "Midnight Magnet" and the stunning steel drum drenched, "Stop The World". Personally, I enjoy every listen of this album with "Ask Your Momma", a pretty powerful candidate for one of the best songs to tackle interracial romance.

5. Irons In The Fire (1980)
Released months after Lady T, Irons In The Fire doesn't play like a continuation or a companion piece to it's predecessor, but it's still a funk-meets-jazz paradise that encapsulates more sass and warm affection. Featuring her biggest hit, "I Need Your Lovin'" in all of it's seven minute hip swiveling glory, there are more little gems to discover that are just as cooking. The 'blue lights in basement' crafted, "Tune In Tomorrow" is a nice scatting showpiece for Teena where she flexes her Jazz . The tropical come-on of "You Make Love Like Springtime" sort of also sets up what "Portuguese Love" would initially take to well...a climax.

4. Starchild (1984)
"Lovergirl". What a great moment where pop mated with funk. In fact, Starchild is Teena's poppiest album, possibly at an attempt to get Teena in a boxing ring with Madonna and Cyndi Lauper at that time. As heavily synthesized and polished as Starchild is, Teena's sass and sensuality isn't lost in all the cool electric feelings of the album. The standout ballad is "Out On A Limb", which Teena just breezes through. Her moments in New Wave are nothing to look over, as "Alibi" has a great driving beat, and the title track broods along in an intergalactic thrust. I have to also point out Teena's impeccable tribute to Marvin Gaye on "My Dear Mr. Gaye", which goes on deaf ears a lot, but has a great arrangement courtesy of some of Gaye's session players who were utilized to give that familiar sound.

3. Lady T (1980)
Following hot on the heels of her 1979 debut, Wild & Peaceful, Lady T was important in that Teena Marie was finally exposed at face value. Teena had been shrouded in mystery as she had been omitted from the cover of her debut (Motown chose to market her this way, as they figured that no one would buy the fact that she was a White woman with that kind of voice---real silly, right?). Now Teena Marie's face is finally presented in full glory on the front cover, ushering in another figure in the "blue-eyed soul" movement. With Minnie Riperton's husband, Richard Rudolph handling production, the album takes on a lovely sheen of disco-tinged funk and torch ballad soul and much more polished and fuller than her debut. "Behind The Groove" is just too funky for itself, along with "You're All The Boogie I Need" which really simmers in its juice. I think some of Teena's best ballads are on here, like "Aladdin's Lamp", "Too Many Colors" (which features the vocals of a then young Maya Rudolph), the spacey "Now That I Have You", and personal favorite, "Co-Pilot To Pilot".

2. Emerald City (1986)
Teena doing heavy metal? Eh, not quite, but Emerald City is a hard-rock feast and a complete 180 from what Teena Marie had done before. Drawing on a concept of a girl who has been every color of the rainbow except for green, and her exploration into love and judgment, Emerald City is chock-filled with sinister rock-tinged tracks. As bizarro as the concept is, this album, for me, shows the range that Teena embodied, simply because she tried on a new pair of shoes, and that they fit. While it's not all hard rockers as the reflective "Sunny Skies" and the Stevie Wonder blueprint of "Batucada Suite", play like the Jazz leanings she took during her Motown days, there is still a lot of grit to go around. Stevie Ray Vaughn appears for a solo on the fabulous, "You So Heavy" and the raging sole single release, "Lips To Find You" features some insane bass trickery. Yet, the real jaw drop is "Love Me Down Easy" which rocks in a harder vein that shows off real raw angst. 

1. It Must Be Magic (1981)
Scruples with Motown records on legal recording terms prompted It Must Be Magic to be Teena's swan song for the label. And actually, it's her finest work. Yeah, I'm a bit bias, considering it features some of my favorite Teena Marie songs, but once you get a whiff of the roller-skating jam of the title track and the fantastic word play in the tribute track to John Lennon ("Revolution"), you'll know Teena wanted to make Motown wish they hadn't tried to mess with her.The album is mostly noted for featuring Teena's tour de force, "Square Biz", one of the first R&B songs to feature a female rapping. Also "Portuguese Love" leaves one feeling as if they sweated off about ten pounds from all the sultriness Samba going on and it is another smoker in the hits catalog. Though there is much excitement here, I have to say that the Aretha Franklin inspired track, "365", and Patrice Rushen assisted torch ballad, "Yes Indeed!" are my favorites out of the bunch. The funk and the quiet storm doesn't let you down here.


  1. I like your choices! Teena was such a great artist.

    I started getting into the Passion Play album last month or so, and it's really good! Have you heard it?

  2. I own all of these albums in some form or another (vinyl, mp3, cd) with the exception of Naked to the World. I know that lovergirl was her most popular song (probably along with Fire and Desire) but I swear, anyone that loves music, knows that, that song, along with her hits really only scratches the surface. Thanks for doing this.

  3. Thanks Bree! You know I have only heard one song "Warm In Momma's Oven" from Passion Play, but you have prompted me to seek it out, because that is actually the one Teena album I have not heard. Thanks for the rec!

    Lina, you're so welcome! "Lovergirl" does just scratch the surface. It sort of amazes me how much work she did indeed put out. Though she has passed maybe people will now find out about these gems that you and I know about.

    And you should so get 'Naked To The World', it's a real fun and sleek album with more Rick James duets and other funky things :)

  4. I love that you took the time to break these CDs down... I have to correct you on the Emerald City track being Sunny SKIES, not Sunny DAYS.

    I also recommend the horribly overlooked Passion Play. I bought it the moment it came out. Theres some great stuff on there including a duet with Lenny Kravitz... Also, the final track "The Air I Breathe"... anytime I hear it I think how much it couldve worked on somebody's soundtrack. Its on par with Bette Midler's "Wings Beneath My Wings".

  5. WIND beneath my Wings, that is!

  6. Eek! Thanks Anon for the correction. It has been fixed :) That is what I get for typing too fast!

    The second recommendation for 'Passion Play'...sounds like I need to seek this one out! Oh, and Lenny Kravitz is on it...hmm.

  7. I have never understood why people think "Emerald City" is such a rock oriented piece. Granted the guitar is a bit more prominent, but I see it as more an electro R&B dance stepper that was popular at the time, which she did well. The toothlessness of "Starchild" was corrected with that album and its bite, and was her creative swansong.

    Not to diss any of the excellent records she continued to do, but this was it. "Robbery" is also up there for me. Nice list. We have lost a gem.-QH

  8. Your assertion that soul artists do not make concept records is just wrong. The Four Tops (who created Motown's first, 'Still Waters Run Deep,' BEFORE Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder did it), Ronnie McNeir (who sang with Teena on 'Starchild'), Millie Jackson, Minnie Riperton, Donna Summer, Smokey Robinson, the post-Robinson Miracles and Syreeta are just some of the R&B acts who have created highly regarded, challenging concept records. This is a good piece but the idea that soul concept albums are a rarity is simply not true. Soul is not all baby making and booty shaking. To say that is insulting. Dig into the crates before making those kinds of statements.

  9. hey jennifer!

    google brought me to your blog! love this article about tee---i am so sad she is gone---what a master she was. if interested check out my blog-- my top 10 fave tee songs. i smiled to see EMERALD CITY and IT MUST BE MAGIC were your #1 and #2 albums also...



  10. QH: It is strong electric R&B, yes, I'd even say it's along what Chaka Khan and Nona Hendryx did on albums like 'Destiny' (Khan) and 'The Heat' and 'Female Trouble' (Nona). But it's probably the hardest album that Teena did, which is why it gets wedged in that genre. Plus when you hear "You So Heavy" and "Love Me Down Easy", I mean, I can hear Lita Ford, Heart, or even Pat Benatar laying those down, and that's rock to my ears. *shrugs*

    But I do agree that we have lost a gem.

    To Anon: I wasn't being insensitive in my discussion of the R&B concept album. I was bringing up the fact that people assume that R&B artists don't DO concept albums. I know very well that Stevie, Prince, Cherelle, (Affair--an exceptional New Jack concept record that didn't get it's due), Alexander O' Neal (Hearsay), and Millie Jackson, along with Teena Marie have crafted exceptional concept albums. But the average Joe, doesn't know or even care to know because they always embellish others and most of those are rock musicians like The Who and The Beatles. I mean, ask about three people about "Robbery", "Affair", "Hearsay", "Caught Up". See who knows actually about those albums, or even those artists? Some people probably found about Teena Marie just this past week. (Another reason for me making this piece.) I said sarcastically that critics think lowly of R&B/Soul and Pop at times and think they don't do albums of that accord because they stupidly associate them with making "party music" and nothing more complex than that. Sarcasm doesn't translate well, so I apologize, but since I snark on here, I was bringing up what uninformed people think. I wasn't belittling soul music and it's artists and it's many complexities. I made this piece to tackle that fact because I felt no one would discuss the work that Teena Marie actually put out and minimize her to doing just "Fire & Desire" and "Lovergirl".

    Jeremy: Thanks for finding the blog and glad you enjoyed the piece! Glad to meet another Teena Marie fan :)

  11. Apology accepted. :-) I apologize as well for coming off harsh, I just get sensitive about my music. Keep up the good work.


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