Dionne Farris is the one who had the unmistakable voice that made us long for “Tennessee" back in 1992. Her work with Arrested Development helped put them on the map, causing many to wonder why she disappeared at the height of their fame. But after an eye-opening episode of TV One’s Unsung, we discovered the truth (she was never an “official” member) and became privy to the in-fighting that ultimately led to her to part ways with the group. Unfortunately, it wouldn't be the last time that Dionne opted to end a music relationship in the fight to maintain her artistic integrity. But a woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do. When it came time for her to stand on her own name, Dionne wanted to craft an album that reflected her artistic vision. She enlisted the help of Atlanta-based band, Follow for Now (led by David Ryan Harris) and went to work on her debut album after Randy Jackson (the producer/American Idol judge, not Michael’s brother) got her signed to Columbia Records. The result was Wild Seed - Wild Flower, a genre-bending juxtaposition of rock, pop, country, blues, funk, jazz, hip hop and R&B that was grievously underrated and underappreciated at the time of its release.
Obviously, the standout track (and Dionne’s biggest charting hit to date, peaking at No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and spending a whopping 29 weeks on the charts) was the surprising anthem, “I Know.” It was surprising because it was a major departure from the Dionne we thought we knew. This wasn’t socially conscious alt-soul music. It was out and out rock -- wrapped up in funk, yes -- but rock, nonetheless. And it was a breath of fresh air. The song still grabs my attention whenever I hear that opening guitar riff.
From there, the album went to the funky groove of “Reality,” challenging listeners to step outside of their comfort zones, embrace knowledge, question everything and think outside of the box. Farris gave us something we could feel when her voice floated like a sensual summer breeze over the guitar-led instrumental of “Passion.” In the aptly titled track, her vocals were a striking contrast to the metal-tinged electric guitar riffs throughout the song.
We all have that song that we put on repeat whenever we’re going through something (i.e. heartbreak/break-up) and “Food For Thought” was that type of song. Knowing what we know now about her musical past, one can’t help but wonder if this was cathartic for her as well.
Light and breezy, “Now or Later” was a pop-leaning tune about mending a friendship. While the bluesy “Find Your Way” veered back into R&B territory as an empowering anthem. Part spoken word piece, “11th Hour” was probably the closest thing to '90s R&B present on the album. Even giving a cheeky nod to her A.D. days by ad-libbing “Won’t you help me?” -- the line that arguably made her famous. Dropping truth bombs aplenty, she advised, “Don’t go near the water if you don’t like to swim / ‘Cause somebody just might try and push you in,” on the funk-tinged country tune, “Water.”
While she’s not the first Black artist to cover a song by The Beatles, it was still a bold move to include a cover of “Blackbird” on the album. Her laid-back acoustic approach retained the sparse feel of the original, while adding depth and color to the simple melody.
Tackling tough subject matter was no surprise when it comes to an artist like Ms. Farris. To the casual listener, “Human” may sound like a fun, almost playful song, showcasing Dionne’s a cappella talents. But then -- and now, especially in the wake of current events -- the simple lyrics of were soberingly relevant. Built on a sample of Lenny Kravitz’s “Freedom Train,” the song “Stop to Think” warned about the dangers of drug addiction. But even more courageous was her decision to address child abuse in “Don’t Ever Touch Me Again.” The way she switched from third-person to first-person references was particularly chilling and effective, as were the haunting visuals for the song.
The inclusion of skits “Old Ladies” and “The Audition” showed that Dionne wasn’t all serious, she had a sense of humor, too. David Alan Grier’s In Living Color character, Calhoun Tubbs' appearance on “The Audition” was an unexpected dose of comic relief.
On an eclectic album like this, perhaps the most puzzling inclusion was the final track, “I Know (NY Reprise Mix).” Oddly enough, for something called the “NY Reprise Mix,” it had a distinctly country-music feel. Even 20 years later, I ask,”Why did she record this?” Not that it was bad, it just felt unnecessary.
Though Wild Seed - Wild Flower wasn’t a major chart success (aside from “I Know”), she went on to record songs for a few soundtracks including, “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free” from Ghosts of Mississippi, and arguably the most recognizable song from the Love Jones soundtrack, “Hopeless” (penned by Van Hunt).
Dionne Farris soon parted ways with record label Columbia, asking to be let out of her contract after their repeated attempts to mold her into someone that she wasn’t -- an R&B diva. She didn't leave empty-handed, though. She had recorded For Truth if Not for Love for the label, but it was never released. She ended up releasing it independently in 2007. She followed up with full length LPs (Signs of Life in 2011 and Dionne Get Your Gunn in 2013), as well as EPs (Lady Dy The Mixtape, Part 1 in 2011 and Hidden Charm in 2013) and singles (“Where is it Most Comfortable for You?” and “It’s Christmas Again”) all released on her own label, Free & Clear Records.
Just a few months ago, she released an album of Dionne Warwick covers with Charlie Hunter called DionneDionne. Twenty years later, ever pushing the envelope and defying anyone who dare try to label her, Ms. Farris continues to prove that you can’t keep a good woman down.
Dionne Farris Wild Seed, Wild Flower [Amazon]