Billy Lawrence is a name that doesn't pop up often when we're discussing '90s era R&B, but she is a part of that vast landscape of artists, talents, and trends that aided the soundtrack of my coming age. She got lost in its ethereal spin with only two albums under her belt and a sprinkle of minor and collaborative singles and hits that not too many remember. Her 1994 debut, One Might Say is personally one of my favorite albums of the '90s, and recalling it two decades later has me reliving the magic of what made the mid-90s such a special moment for R&B music.
If Billy Lawrence's name or the album itself escapes your memory, you might remember the song "Happiness".
Ring a few bells now?
If not, that's okay, "Happiness" didn't chart too well as it rested on the Hot 100 at #87. Ouch. The R&B/hip-hop chart wasn't any better as it cracked just barely into the #61 position. The only way I remembered this song was that the radio play of it was pretty substantial at my end, and it was just pure fate that I scooped up One Might Say several years later, and re-discovered the song all over again. "Happiness" is a quintessential lost R&B gem. The cheery bassline, twittering calliope keys, the remnant of New Jack Swing --- it's just swimming in melodic utopia. If summertime had a theme song you can just smell the heat, sunblock, ice cream, and pool chlorine wafting off of "Happiness". An innocence this song has and every time I put it on it urges me to smile wider.
Just like most underrated album's of its ilk, One Might Say, is a head scratch as to why it never took flight. Though it doesn't happen often, it's is a solid, straight-through listen for me. I really don't hate anything on it. It oozes out '90s with its earthy summery soft vibe, and it gives me urges to wear a flannel shirt tied around my waist, all while drinking Capri Sun and stompin' the pavement in Doc Martens while wearing about half of what I would circle in a Delia*s catalog. Don't laugh or think I'm trippin', it's true, it's just a damn good album.
Lawrence's voice makes this set, and I've often thought she had one of the more interesting voices of the '90s. She eases into songs, pouring over them a sweet almost childlike whisper of a soprano (the plushy "Truly"), but when she turns the heat up and digs in (the saucy TLC-esque single, "Boyfriend", "Forgive Me Baby"), a smoky slow burn her voice becomes, or if she's really diggin' in, a sunlit diva-styled croon will burst out. Though the album is littered with such vocal variance, prime examples that really show off her multifaceted range are on slow torch burners such as "Good Times & Bad" and the mostly piano-led "Favorite One" where she gives Mariah Carey a run for her Music Box money.
As much as I can leisurely drink up this whole album (and I should mention that it is mostly written and produced by Lawrence herself), I always tend to pour second helpings when it comes to "Feelings Carry On", "Truly", "Distant Love", and the poppiest thing here, "My Heart, My Angel". Really love "Feelings Carry On" the most, as its romantic serenity is unmatched, while "Truly" and "Distant Love" are so sincere that they bloom with fragrant euphony.
Looking back, One Might Say is one of the many transitional albums of its time (TLC's CrazySexyCool, Mary J. Blige's My Life, D'Angelo's Brown Sugar) that fully pushes R&B into the '90s. Like its peers, One Might Say attempted to inch away from the slickness and drum machine sharp of the suited up New Jack era, and proceed to lounge into a laid-back bohemian vibe that richly blurred jazz, hip-hop, and the melodic soul and blues of the '70s together. The title track is a perfect example of this shift as its blue tinged soul wails and sprawling record static groove would soon become the assigned flourishes of the "neo-soul" movement.
Billy Lawrence's solo career continued quietly as it entered. She had a small breakthroughs once her second (and last album) Paradise arrived in 1997, and it spawned the highest chart entry of her career with the MC Lyte assisted, "Come On" (#44 on the Hot 100). The song gained further exposure when it was featured on the soundtrack for the Queen Latifah and Vivica L. Fox feminist flick, Set It Off. Lawrence found better success as a hook girl for rappers Mase and Rampage, as well as a background vocalist and songwriter on albums for the short-lived R&B girl groups, Allure and Blaque, as well as Jennifer Lopez's breakthrough debut, 1999's On The 6.
She penned four songs for TLC's 1999 FanMail project, but unfortunately her songs didn't make the final cut, and as the '90s dissolved into the 2000s, Lawrence (unfairly) faded into the backdrop, becoming yet another victim of being one fish too many in a sea of other musically and vocally astute R&B chanteuses and personalities. At post time Billy Lawrence is trekking down the comeback trail as she has a SoundCloud dotted with new material, and though we can't get the time of One Might Say back, from the sound of things it's a comfort to know that she's still got that candy-coated soul stir of a voice that brought me so much 'happiness' 20 years ago. I guess some things never change.