Jodeci’s Unplugged ‘Lately’ Was Its Pinnacle. Andre Harrell Made It Happen.

Jodeci’s Unplugged ‘Lately’ Was Its Pinnacle. Andre Harrell Made It Happen.

Jodeci’s Unplugged ‘Lately’ Was Its Pinnacle. Andre Harrell Made It Happen.

Jodeci’s Unplugged ‘Lately’ Was Its Pinnacle. Andre Harrell Made It Happen.

In the most memorable performance of his career, K-Ci Hailey is shirtless, wearing a backward baseball cap, two earrings in each ear and blue boxer shorts mushrooming out over low-slung black jeans. At times, he struts around with a cane. The pendant dangling from the gold chain around his neck bears the logo of his group, Jodeci.

It’s early 1993, and Jodeci is performing “Lately” as part of an “MTV Unplugged” special devoted to Uptown Records. Uptown — founded by Andre Harrell, who died last week — was the first label granted an “Unplugged” special of its own, and the lineup was stacked: the budding soul siren Mary J. Blige, fresh off her debut album, “What’s the 411?”; the buoyant hip-hop group Heavy D & the Boyz; the irrepressibly smooth rapper Father MC; the irrepressibly smooth singer Christopher Williams.

But they all felt like humble opening acts for the robust, audacious R&B foursome Jodeci, at that point still floating on the success of its sterling 1991 debut album, “Forever My Lady.” The “Unplugged” franchise was predicated on the erasure of artifice, a way to see superstars without the pylons that hold them up and the glaze that makes them pretty. There wasn’t much of that to start with when it came to the prodigiously talented Jodeci, a group brimming with raw sexual gusto and pinpoint vocal harmonies kiln-fired in North Carolina churches.

This head-rush-intense recording of “Lately” is, on some days, my absolute favorite piece of music, a pinnacle achievement. Vocal brilliance, mature restraint, vigorous performance, supreme confidence — it would be a master class if anyone were able to study it, learn from it and replicate it. Not likely.

Jodeci was made up of two sets of brothers — K-Ci and JoJo (Cedric and Joel Hailey), and DeVanté Swing and Mr. Dalvin (Donald and Dalvin DeGrate) — though at times it could feel like a one-man band, with K-Ci as the tempestuous alpha. Throughout the group’s performance (which also included the hits “Come & Talk to Me,” “Forever My Lady” and “Stay”), JoJo, Dalvin and DeVanté are painting luscious watercolor scenes. Wearing forest-green leather motorcycle vests, black pants and black boots, they’re vibrant, delicate, elegantly contoured.

K-Ci, meanwhile, slinks among them doing Jackson Pollock, Isiah Thomas, Wile E. Coyote. A vocal dynamo at the peak of his power — and sometimes beyond it — he’s notionally on the same plane of existence as everyone else, but really dipping in and out of different dimensions, an alien and a conqueror.

The calmest he gets is during “Lately,” performed by just him and his brother. They begin on stools, contemplative, maybe a little drained. JoJo, the placater in the family, with a pager clipped into his right jeans pocket, introduces the song almost sheepishly. K-Ci revs into gear with some vamps, but JoJo takes the early reins with sugar-sweet coos. He gets four lines in like this — technically precise, tender, heavy with the sense of regret just around the corner.

Then he passes the baton: “K-Ci, sing it.” The piano offers up a little march-like flourish, then cedes the floor.

There aren’t many human parallels to the way K-Ci enters the song here: a bugle blaring the Reveille, the pink sun nudging over the horizon. He is skinny but not slight, all sinew and boxed-up energy, a spring waiting for the bounce. He leans into the microphone just a bit, his head vibrating under the sheer intensity of his singing.

They go back and forth every few lines — K-Ci detonating bombs, JoJo spreading rose petals. The song is about the body-shaking certainty you are being misled by the person you love. It’s a plea, but it’s sung proudly, as if learning you have been undermined is a kind of triumph.

K-Ci is perhaps a little peppier, a little more rascally, than the song demands, but his vim turns out to be an asset. He’s almost jaunty when singing, “When I ask you all the thoughts you’re keeping/You just said …” Then the nitrous oxide kicks in, and K-Ci goes from bystander to victim, growling “Noooooothing’s chaaaanged!” like a human defibrillator.

JoJo is here to catch him, again — throughout the song, K-Ci is aggrieved, JoJo reluctant but proud. There’s a stretch around four minutes in where they echo each other word for word, ache translated into entreaty, a choose-your-own-heartbreak explosion. It is hard not to feel drenched or depleted at the end of watching it — it’s like standing amid a thunderstorm with no cover. The wetness is a thrill.

The “Unplugged” performance of “Lately” became iconic — parodied on “In Living Color,” integrated into a hilarious episode of “Martin.” Jodeci rerecorded it for a studio version that’s far more polite, leaching out the bruised ardor of the “Unplugged” performance. They’ve performed it umpteen times since, sometimes dismantling it — a 2002 rendition at a BET tribute to Stevie Wonder had some particularly tumultuous moments.

Released as the promotional single for the “Uptown MTV Unplugged” album, “Lately” went to No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart, and No. 4 on the Hot 100, making it Jodeci’s biggest pop hit. The song is, of course, not a Jodeci original — it was a minor hit for Wonder in 1981. In Wonder’s hands, it was relatively tame, a little lagging and un-nimble; he doesn’t really get busy until the song’s loose fourth and final minute.

That’s where K-Ci and JoJo likely took their cues from, adding in the sober ecstasy of gospel. Outsinging Wonder is, ordinarily, a fool’s fantasy. K-Ci said recently that Harrell had asked Jodeci to sing “Lately” only a day or so before the special was recorded, buying the CD and playing the music for them. But the Hailey brothers, quite frankly, lovingly annihilated Wonder’s original. There is no other version of the song that matters. And sometimes, there is no other song that matters at all.


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