Wipe Off The Dust: Alexander O'Neal's 'Hearsay', 25 Years Later

Friday, March 9, 2012

If there is ever a more perfect 5-star worthy album in my collection, it is Alexander O'Neal's 1987 Hearsay.

We often say they don't make albums like Hearsay anymore. Well, in part it's true, but I don't like to short-change the new breed, as gems can be found amid rubble these days too. Still if you're looking for a album that embodies a high-class sound and killer overall performance from all parties involved, Hearsay is a go-to. Now celebrating 25 years of shelf-life (!), Hearsay is a supreme master class to what Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis could do as producers. True, that a certain Miss Jackson, would bring prominence to what the duo could do and did a year prior with her Control set, but this is a build-off and expansion of that unique aural environment Jam & Lewis built in the 1980's.

From beginning as a member of The Time, but later thrown out by his Purple Highness for sounding "too Black" (whatever that is), Alexander O'Neal went the solo route and released his 1984 self-debut to a fistful of hits, including the scorching "Innocent". On album #2, Alexander is far from a slump as the aggression and style expressed on his debut is punched up, punched up, dramatized, and even more funkier than previously stated.

Loosely based around a concept of an on-going party, Hearsay, follows O'Neal through his escapades as a roving bachelor in the throws of that "dreaded" four-letter word. It oozes with machismo as it's downright 'dude' in it's content matter and by the growling vocal delivery of O'Neal, as he lets his tenor wrap around the top-notch material. Still a woman can swoon over Alexander's croons, while a man can feel secure listening to him as Alex does a bit of 'boys club' razzing of his own with comical turns in tow. In short, Alexander O'Neal is well...a straight-up pimp on this. He is, slightly arrogant, bold, but all-the-way romantic, and he plays you like a deck of cards. He's calling out women for being counterfeit, even for them criticizing his existence, but then he turns right around, turns on the charms and is a down-right lover man. Pimp.

Hearsay structurally plays like a greatest hits package, as song-after-song is a highlight. Following in pre-New Jack Swing mode, hits like the perfect funk-a-thon "Fake" go in for the kill along with it's 'nasty bass' while "Criticize" is brazen and funky to the hilt, with great phrasing and hooks a plenty, especially with background vocalist Lisa Keith giving the female response to the ordeal. The opener, "(What Can I Say) To Make You Love Me" rocks in with ferocity, and my personal favorite, "The Lovers" is stark and infectious with a great chorus. The title-track is yet another stand-out, with it's lush and soulful arrangement.

Like I mentioned throughout all this "swag" (I so dislike that word, but it fits), O'Neal keeps the females in mind as he's a perfect gentlemen with duet partner in crime, Cherrelle when she shows up for "Never Knew Love Like This". It's no "Saturday Love", and you don't want it to be, as it is equally sharp and electric with some neat Gospel tones in it. Keeping the log on the fire, the moody "Sunshine" is a perfect Minneapolis Sound ballad as well as the closing propositional suite, "Crying Overtime" and "When The Party's Over".

Though O'Neal has had a much more solid career in the UK in the last decades, his shine and prominence, in the States has sadly, been quite reduced. Which is why with such finesse and paunch delivery, you have to question about this album not being lauded as the Purple Rain or Thriller of Alexander's career. And why is it sort of forgotten? From viewing Alexander's Unsung episode the reasons why are pretty much outlined as substance abuse led to Alexander's career taking a nose-dive and his relationship with Jam & Lewis suffered in light of that.

Still in my mind, if O'Neal had kept clean and had a better promotional team for Hearsay, he no doubt would have given Luther Vandross a run for his money, and might even have stolen his thunder. Not to say that the late Vandross wouldn't have had success, but out of all the 80's soul men from Freddie Jackson to Billy Ocean and back to Luther, Alexander was probably the most ambitious in his sound, had that troubled lover man a la Marvin Gaye style down pact, and had the exciting and much better voice. As much as I can't stand the word---the man had swagger for days and all of that is outlined in Hearsay, a all-true album that embodied the best of what 1980's R&B was from a singer who did it best.

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